We followed the sidewalk almost directly across from our site, heading straight toward the bathhouse. As we left the campground, turning a corner through the dry Texas brush, furry figures came to a halt a few yards in front of us. We squinted, trying to discern between mounds of sandy dirt and earth-colored animals. The yelping from the sentinels, a high-pitched bark that gives the prairie dog its name, told us exactly where to look.
We were within sight of the trailhead, coming back from a five and a half mile hike, which included a rigorous climb and descent. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I whisper-shouted, “Look!” to Eric. Blocking our exit, a bull bison stood munching the tall grass. He had spotted us, so we slowly created our own trail back to the Jeep.
Two stories of many from our week at Caprock Canyons State Park in the Texas Panhandle. This underrated state park is unlike any place we’ve stayed in more than four years of fulltime travel. To think it’s in our home state, and we had never been there before this month.
You’ll never stumble upon it. You have to know about it to find it. But once you do, you’ll be immersed in wildlife and red rock beauty. This is home to the Texas State Bison Herd, a group of about 100 animals that literally roam free around the entire state park, including through the campground and onto hiking trails.
We stayed at Caprock Canyons State Park from March 3-10, 2018.
Note: This article includes affiliate links. If you get excited about any of the products featured here, we’d love it if you’d shop via our links. This will encourage us to continue investing time in creating useful content!
Where to Learn
After winding along the entry road for a while, you’ll arrive at the visitor center parking lot. Go inside for your pass or pay for camping at the kiosk if it’s after hours.
There are a few exhibit panels inside the visitor center, as well as behind the building at the overlook. We could see a lone bison in the valley beneath the overlook, as well as a good part of the herd in the field across from the visitor center. And we had barely entered the park.
We were disappointed there weren’t any ranger-led talks about the bison herd during our stay. We left on Spring Break Saturday, which is apparently when the bulk of the educational events begin for the season. If you can, time your visit with events and activities at the park. I would’ve loved to have learned more from the person who actually takes care of the bison herd.
Where to See the Animals
You won’t have any trouble finding animals at Caprock Canyons State Park. Part of the herd is typically right by the visitor center, where there’s generous grazing. But the 100 animals split off into groups and roam all over the state park. We saw them on the outskirts of the campground two days in a row, and saw lone bulls along the road to the South and North Prong hiking areas.
As far as the prairie dogs, the other main animal attraction, they’re a blast to watch. Honey Flat Prairie Dog Town is directly adjacent to the campground. You’ll walk by their subterranean homes on the way to the bathrooms or trash cans.
It’s so cool to observe their warning system. One prairie dogs keeps watch from his hole, loudly barking. When you get to close, he retreats out of sight. Immediately, another prairie dog a little farther away takes up the call. This pattern repeats as you slowly walk down the road.
Where to Hike at Caprock Canyons State Park
The hiking is so. good. here. There are nine trails that vary widely in difficulty. On the easy side, Canyon Rim Trail (2.95 miles one way) right by the campground is basically flat. At least for the first mile and a half, which is all we did. I even took our BOB stroller on the trail for about half a mile. The trail gives you beautiful views of Holmes Creek Canyon.
Mesa Trail (3-mile loop) is supposed to be even easier, though we didn’t do that one.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Upper Canyon Trail kicked our butt and was absolutely awesome. It’s the second most challenging trail in the park, next to Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail.
We were hoping to hike 4.5-mile Upper Canyon Trail, connect to 1.3-mile Canyon Loop Trail, and end up in the parking lot where we started. There are two main points of interest along the second half of the trail:
- Fern Cave – “Here you will find natural springs that have created the ideal habitat for ferns growing along a scenic canyon overhang.”
- The Last Dance – “View a ‘hoodoo’ geologic formation resembling a couple in a dance-like pose.”
Unfortunately for us, we didn’t start the Upper Canyon Trail until 2 p.m.; didn’t summit until 5 p.m.; and then started worrying about daylight. We ended up going back the way we came, about half a mile short of Fern Cave. 😞
At the time, I was really disappointed about having to turn back, but the feeling didn’t last. This trail was the most challenging I’d ever tackled, and I did it with 30-pound #BabyNomad on my back. So I ended up feeling satisfied with what I had accomplished. The red rocks surrounding us were stunning, and the shallow creek crossings before the climb added interest to the hike.
By the way, if you’re in need of a solid baby carrier, I can’t recommend the Lillebaby Airflow highly enough. It’s allowed me to take #BabyNomad to places I never could have otherwise, and this was definitely one of them.
More from our Upper Canyon Trail hike (click the thumbnails below for full images):
The last trail the ranger at the visitor center recommended to us was Eagle Point Trail (2 miles one way). That trail features The Natural Bridge, a geological feature you can walk underneath and through.
Other Things to Do at Caprock Canyons State Park
Not too far past the visitor center, Lake Theo is open for swimming and fishing. A ton of the trails are bike-friendly. The park road alone offers opportunity for a smooth, scenic ride.
There are trails that allow horse-back riding, too. If you’re interested, Quitaque Riding Stables offers guided tours.
The first time we visited the South Prong Tent Camping Area, where Upper Canyon Trail begins, a group was rock-climbing on the nearby cliffs. I’m not sure whether you need a permit to climb, so check with a ranger first.
We were told the best place in the park to watch the sunset is the amphitheater on the left side of the road, before you get to Honey Flat Camping Area.
What to Expect From the Campground
We were pleased with the campground. We stayed in site #27, which was long enough for our 40-foot motorhome. We parked our Jeep Wrangler cross-ways in front of the RV, since there wasn’t quite enough room to back in.
We had 50-amp and water. There’s a dump station near the campground. The bathhouse was extremely clean and didn’t seem dated. There were four shower stalls, each with a latch and private changing area. The water was hot, and there was lots of it (even when two other people were showering at the same time).
Our site had a huge lawn area. There wasn’t much grass to speak of, but there was a large shelter over the picnic table. We were able to put our patio rug and anti-gravity chairs right next to the shelter. There, they were shaded for the second half of the day. We could relax in the afternoon, or grill for dinner and eat in the shade.
I appreciated the fact that we could easily walk to the prairie dog town or to Canyon Rim Trail’s trailhead, right from our site.
Outside Caprock Canyons State Park
Quitaque (pronounced “kitty-kay”) is the town right outside the state park. It’s small and quiet, but its townspeople are clearly proud of Caprock Canyons State Park and its bison herd. There are bison murals and statues on almost every corner.
The one night we wanted to eat out (after our 6.5-mile hike), we ended up driving to Turkey because we couldn’t find anything in Quitaque. JB’s BBQ was only about 20 minutes away, and we really enjoyed the meal and Texas-style service. The brisket was good, but the blackberry cobbler was don’t-miss.
Galvan’s in Turkey was also recommended to us. That’s actually where we were going to eat, but the hours on Yelp weren’t correct and it was closed when we arrived. Either that, or they didn’t have any diners and decided to close early. #smalltexastown
If it means anything to you, the Bob Wills Museum is also in Turkey. We found out he was the “King of Western Swing.”
I do recommend you grocery shop before arriving in the area. We got all our groceries for the week back in Austin, where the selection was better and prices were more affordable. Merrell Food, Quitaque’s grocery store, is not large.
We took the dirt road that led to Folsom Historical Site, an archaeological site purportedly from 10,000 years ago. We had only been at Caprock Canyons State Park for about a day, and adrenaline was still running high. “Look at all of them!” Eric pointed at a half-dozen bison grazing in a field in the distance.
“Yeah, and up there!” I pointed excitedly in another direction.
“Those are trees.”
“No, they aren’t. They’re bison.”
“There’s no way. They would be the biggest bison ever. That hill is really far away.”
“You and your bison trees.”
Bison trees are now a running joke. But seriously, I feel spoiled to have stayed at this beautiful, exceptional place. Please add it to your list if you like any of the following:
- Beautiful scenery
- Happy bison
- Loud prairie dogs
And really, if you don’t like those things, then what do you like?