Amarillo, Texas -- "We're in purgatory," said trail guide Jerry Baker over the CB radio as our convoy of Jeep vehicles coiled along a dirt track at the base of the Palo Duro Canyon. I was riding shotgun in Rubi, the AEV-modified 2004 Rubicon that belongs to my friend Marilyn Childress, and the interior temperature displayed on the Jeep's rearview mirror was 133 degrees!
It's said that hell is hot, but never is the place referred to as "punishment in the afterlife" called beautiful. This canyon land into which we had descended was breathtaking -- whether one is at the rim of the escarpment looking out over 60 miles of carved, multicolored grandeur; motoring through a midlevel collection of pinnacles, buttes, and mesas punctuated with grasses, juniper, mesquite, and prickly pear; or winding through the bottomlands, whose steep sides of banded layers of orange, red, brown, yellow, gray, maroon, and white rocks denote four different geologic periods and a time span of more than 240 million years.
Once you've seen the Palo Duro's splendor and experienced the high temperatures even when nearly 1000 feet deep in the canyon in the midday summer sun, it comes as no surprise that famed painter Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived in nearby Amarillo and Canyon early in the 20th century, wrote, "It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color."
It wasn't the occasional punishment of the heat, but the splendor of the canyon that led Mark A. Smith to add Palo Duro to his list of Jeep Jamborees 25 years ago, as it fits his standards of taking Jeepers and their families on adventures in some of the most picturesque locations in the U.S. Other criteria? Trails that accommodate stock vehicles, as well as tracks that challenge modified Jeeps and their drivers, and locations that provide an opportunity to learn about our nation's history. For 2013, there are 30 JJUSA offerings.
Some say the Palo Duro Canyon, the second-largest canyon in North America and referred to as the Grand Canyon of Texas, is the most spectacular and scenic landscape feature in the Lone Star state's panhandle. Its name is Spanish for "hardwood," referencing the hardwood shrubs and trees found in the canyon, which was carved into the eastern Caprock escarpment of the High Plains over the past 90 million years by the headwaters of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. The canyon's head lies 15 miles southeast of Amarillo in Randall County, and it extends 60 miles southeast through Armstrong County and into Briscoe County. It averages widths of more than 6 miles. Embedded in the rock layers are fossils of long-extinct animals and plants. Today, cottonwood, willow, and salt cedar pepper the banks of Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.
The Palo Duro Canyon has a rich history as a campsite for prehistoric peoples, American Indian tribes, and even cattle ranchers. The convenience of wood, water, game, edible wild plants, and raw materials for weapons and tools, as well as shelter from harsh winter winds, attracted its first inhabitants, who lived there between 10,000 and 5000 B.C. and hunted giant bison and mammoths. Archeologists have documented their lifestyle through projectile points, stone tools, mortar holes, paintings, carvings, and other artifacts. It's believed the first Europeans to see the canyon were members of the Coronado Expedition in 1541, when the region was occupied by Apaches. Later it became a campground for Plains Indians, Comanche, and Kiowa.
In 1876, a group of army engineers, teamsters, and civilian draftsmen was sent to conduct a topographic and scientific survey and explore the headwaters of the Red River. The same year, Charles Goodnight drove his cattle into the canyon and set up the JA, the first commercial ranch in the Panhandle. Other cattlemen followed, as did picnickers and campers, and, in 1933, the state of Texas purchased land in the upper canyon and established the Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park. Over time, the Civilian Conservation Corps made improvements and built a road to the floor of the canyon, under the direction of the National Park Service. Today the park covers more than 15,000 acres, and some half-million visitors come annually. The lower portion of the canyon remains private ranchland.
I had come to this jamboree upon the recommendation of Childress, who knows Jeeps. She and her family of four have owned 14 different Jeep vehicles and recently purchased Lola, a 2014 Grand Cherokee. We joined 203 participants from 17 states, driving 96 Jeep models. Some Jeepers were newcomers and many were Texans, along with others from nearby states who love this particular event. There was also a posse of comrades who follow the Jeep Jamborees throughout the country, just as Childress does.
Childress lives in Austin with her husband, Tres, and uses her family's Ford F-350 Super Duty Lariat to haul Rubi on a 28-foot flatbed trailer. While she waxes on about other JJUSA locations, she has a passion for the Palo Duro Jeep Jamboree. "They serve great Texas food on this event, incredible trail guides help out, but also it's a big part of Texas to be on the Christian Ranch -- I've heard about this ranch since I was a little girl," the native Texan explained, referring to the Christians' Figure 3 historic ranch that is the headquarters for the jamboree and provides home-cooked meals prepared in Dutch ovens and over open fires.
Childress, who packs a Smith & Wesson 357 named Daisy in her console (this is legal, and a Texas thing), attended her first Jeep Jamboree in 2002, as a participant and passenger. Two years later, she drove a Jeep over the Rubicon Trail, and the rest is history. A property manager by day, she now is a JJUSA Trip Leader and trail guide and will assist with eight Jeep Jamboree USA events in 2013.
JJUSA staffers say the Palo Duro Jeep Jamboree embodies all the best elements the Southwest has to offer. After an authentic cowboy breakfast on the edge of the canyon's nearly 1000-foot walls, you'll travel down red dirt tracks into a Grand Canyon-like gorge that has drawn many filmmakers to capture its pristine beauty and fascinating and varied topography. It's perfect for four-wheeling on sandstone, rocks, and boulders, with long, steep climbs that provide challenges and fun, as well as lots of opportunities to spectate.
After two days of Jeeping on a perfect mix of easy and challenging trails in the Palo Duro Canyon, we joined the now-bonded group of participants for a meal of Texas steak and homemade beans and biscuits, as we listened to a talk by Tom Christian, whose family came to this ranch by wagon team more than a century before.
While the vehicles are vastly different today, the views across the enchanted escarpment as the sun cast its last rays are the same majestic ones that captivated the Christian family in 1902 and thousands of pioneers before us.
The Palo Duro's multicolored ravines, caves, and coulees will beckon many future travelers. Hot or not, we say bring it on!