The Texas Underground

How to build a mountain biking oasis in flyover country

Driving toward Palo Duro Canyon State Park, you may feel like the butt of a cruel joke. Nothing on the flat, featureless plains of the Texas Panhandle makes you expect great mountain biking. So even if you’ve caught wind of the network of sticky singletrack that’s been steadily growing in this park located 35 miles south of Amarillo, you’ll look at the parched brown grasses extending to the horizon and you will doubt the tales of buffed red clay winding among sheer canyon cliffs.

“Then you come to this massive gash in the earth, with green trees and purple cliffs,” says local rider Chris Podzemny. For 20 years, he’s helped to maintain the trail network at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, but the surprise of finding this vein of red-rock hidden below the Texas grassland has never grown old.

an aerial view of Palo Duro Canyon

A land of contrast | Photo: sarowen

Measuring 120 miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep, Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the U.S.

Its improbable location has also kept Palo Duro a relative secret. Residents of nearby Amarillo and Lubbock have been flocking here for years to camp beneath striated cliffs and hike among sculpted stone monoliths such as The Lighthouse, a Texas landmark that looks like a seaside tower—only its stripes are made of eroded stone and clay. But Palo Duro’s reputation is expanding, in part because of the park’s growing appeal to mountain bikers.

Podzemny heads up a group of dazzlingly dedicated volunteers called the Palo Duro Corps of Engineers who have developed new multi-use routes that are devilishly fun on fat tires. This state park now offers some of the most technical riding—and the most extensive trail network—of any state park in Texas. The Rock Garden Trail (which climbs nearly 800 feet from the canyon bottom to the rim) opened in 2011. Kiowa, the newest connector, was completed earlier this spring.

Riders in neighboring states are catching on. From November through May, when Rocky Mountain trails are buried under snow, some of Colorado’s dirt-starved mountain bikers now commute to Palo Duro for temperate weather and routes that push their skills and fitness. “We’re hearing that trails here are just as good as anything in Fruita or Buffalo Creek,” says Podzemny. And the drive is closer than you’d think (Palo Duro Canyon State Park is only 6 hours from Colorado Springs).

A rider pauses to take in the Martian landscape | Photo: Sam Matthews

It’s worth the trip. Measuring 120 miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep, Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the U.S. (only Arizona’s Big Ditch beats it). The state park preserves a 15-mile segment, comprising 28,000 acres of rugged topography. Climbing from the canyon bottom to the rim on the new Rock Garden Trail will test any rider’s lungpower. It also demands savvy bike-handling skills: Switchbacks are steep and tight, and rockpiles put the burn on riders’ quads. Meanwhile, the GSL and other trails that roll across the canyon bottom feature smooth Permian clay. “It’s as hard as concrete, but has tons of traction so you can really rail on the corners,” says Podzemny.

Weaving through massive boulders and sheer red cliffs is stunning during the day, but it’s equally impressive at night—especially during a full moon. “That really lights up the rock formations and makes the landscape seem even more dramatic,” says Podzemny. More than aesthetic, night riding lets local riders beat the summer heat (when temps can climb above 110 degrees). People overnighting within the park can also ride right from camp (the Juniper Campground sits within a quarter-mile of the Rock Garden trailhead).

Obtaining all the necessary permits to build trails in public parks can eat up more time than volunteer groups have the patience and stamina to endure.

People have lived in Palo Duro Canyon for 12,000 to 15,000 years, and more recent residents—like the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, for which the park’s newest trails are named—left behind traces of settlements that still remain in un-trafficked parts of the park.

Some of the tribes’ historic paths were developed into official park trails by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s. And in 1999, Podzemny re-discovered some long-lost maps indicating canyon routes that had long been forgotten. The Corps of Engineers revived some of those old paths by developing them into the new Rock Garden and Comanche trails. So Palo Duro’s “newest” routes actually let mountain bikers (as well as hikers and runners) follow in the footsteps of the Native Americans that first settled the canyon.

But Podzemny had an ace up his sleeve.

All those layers of history might’ve actually stymied trail development. After all, state parks and their managers are charged with protecting cultural resources—and because they’re chronically understaffed and underfunded, they don’t always have the time or manpower to make sure that trail proposals don’t harm archaeological sites. Thus, obtaining all the necessary permits and bureaucratic approvals to build trails in public parks can eat up more time than volunteer groups have the patience and stamina to endure. (It took 10 years to get the official green light for the Rock Garden Trail.)

Members of the Corp of Engineers hard at work sculpting switchbacks and a bench cut along the brand-new Kiowa | Photo: Chris Podzemny

But Podzemny had an ace up his sleeve: As a state employee himself (he works for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality), he knows how to make the Corps’ trail proposals fit the park’s practices and procedures. Plus, he and other members of the Corps volunteered to get the training required to do some of the work typically performed by park employees.

For example, anytime a trail-building session takes place, one of the parks’ cultural monitors must be present to recognize historical artifacts and make sure they aren’t damaged by pulaskis and pry-bars. “You need someone on hand to be able to recognize evidence of an old fire, or a trash midden, or former ranch structures,” explains Mark Hassell, Palo Duro’s Resource and Trails Manager. But there aren’t many employees within the Texas state parks who have that monitoring certification. Getting one to show up for five hours on a Sunday morning was difficult—and some construction sessions ended prematurely when the cultural monitor got called away to deal with a park emergency.

That explains why Palo Duro has more trails and better riding than a typical state park, in Texas or elsewhere.

So Podzemny and other members of the Corps attended the cultural resource monitoring classes they needed to be able to supervise trail construction themselves. “Their willingness to go through that training has definitely enhanced the opportunities we’re able to offer to the general public here,” says Shannon Blalock, superintendent of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. “They want to see this place be the best it can be, not just for themselves, but for future generations.”

The trails here take full advantage of the canyon’s unique topography. Photo: Chris Podzemny

That explains why Palo Duro has more trails (40-plus miles and counting) and better riding than a typical state park, in Texas or elsewhere. “There’s a really tight-knit bike community here,” says Podzemny. Its ranks include former pros, such as Caleb Fairly (who raced for Team Giant/Alpecin) and XC mountain bike racer Elliot McKinney. It also includes bike-builders Hawke and Alex Morgan, who founded Buffalo Composite Designs (BCD) to experiment with some of the earliest carbon fiber mountain bike frames.

Those characters, along with the recreational set, gather for events such as 24 Hours in the Canyon and the Palo Duro Canyon Mountain Bike Marathon (a race that’s sponsored, in part, by Sun Adventure Sports, an Amarillo bike shop).

But, says Podzemny, Palo Duro sees very few of the user conflicts that are typical of busier trail systems. “In the Panhandle, we’re known for being really polite,” he explains. “That extends to the trails.”