PALO DURO CANYON STATE PARK, Texas - Buy the right ticket, and you'll have the best seat in the theater at the summer production of Texas in this Panhandle preserve.
To be front row center on the canyon - the second-largest in the nation - you book one of the three cabins on the rim.The trio of rustic, cliff-top lodgings are hot tickets during the run of the musical drama, favorite places to overnight just minutes from the outdoor Pioneer Amphitheater where Texas is staged. But the small hideaways offer a retreat from the world year-round.
Like the show, preparing for its 44th season, the cabins are part of the state's history.
In the depths of the Great Depression, troops of the Civilian Conservation Corps came with dynamite and hand tools and carved a state park from the canyon's rough terrain 25 miles southeast of Amarillo. They built roads. They built trails. They built entrance and museum buildings and furniture for them.
And they slotted sandstone boulders together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and created three cabins on the very lip of Palo Duro Canyon and four smaller shelters at Cow Camp on the canyon's floor.
The park, officially opened July 4, 1934, will mark its 75th anniversary this year. The cabins, completed in 1937, are only slightly younger. They wear their years well.
Staff keeps close watch on maintenance, assisted by the nonprofit Partners in Palo Duro Canyon Foundation, which last year supplied new beds and mattresses to the rim and Cow Camp cabins.
Nature also has a hand in the durability of all the CCC structures.
Volunteer Henrietta Doss points to thick rock walls at the interpretive center and judges, "We'll be here forever."
But longevity and popularity don't mean luxury in the five-star-resort sense.
The luxury of the canyon's lodgings is in location, location, location.
The rim views are spellbinding panoramas across Timbercreek Canyon, a finger of the 120-mile-long Palo Duro gorge. The Cow Camp huts nestle well below the rim near the turnaround on the park's 19-mile loop road. Colorful rock layers cupping the one-room cabins were laid down as long as 250 million years ago.
Each rim cabin has two rooms, at least one fireplace, a picnic table, grill, heating and cooling unit, microwave, small refrigerator, and toilet and shower. Cow Camp cabins are short the bathroom, which is across the road at Mesquite Camp Area, and indoor running water.
Each of the three rim cabins has something to recommend it. Placed side by side on the canyon's brow, they flank the park's main road, protected from the curious by a high fence and locked gates.
Goodnight cabin, closest to the park's entrance three-quarters of a mile away, offers a virtually unimpeded view of the canyon through a post fence.
Lighthouse, just above the interpretive center, has a picnic table shaded by trees, which curtail the vista.
In the middle and largest of the three, Sorenson is ideal for families. A chain-link fence keeps kids from the precipice, though the wire filters the view. A large, sloping yard behind the cabin invites romping.
Sorenson, named for artist Jack Sorenson, who grew up on the canyon's rim, is a snug haven in an early spring blow.
Wind, like an impatient visitor, stamps its feet outside the door, and when you open it, barges in, leaving a trail of dried grass and leaf litter. The broom is in the closet; cleanup is your job. No ranger comes to tidy the place each day.
Gusts whistle and moan around the large, tabular stones of the cabin's outer walls. Inside, the coziness whispers, "Nap time."
A full-size bunk bed made of pine logs shares one room with the fridge, microwave and coffee maker. In the second room, a queen-size bed, also built of the blond logs, accompanies nightstands, an extra chair, a small chest holding spare blankets, and the AC unit, which cycles on and off with a noisy growl. A fire ban is in effect, and the cabin's two hearths remain cold.
Bedding and four sets of towels are provided. The shower is strong and the hot water plentiful, although fresh air is the only hair dryer. The extras are minimal, and their simplicity makes you smile: a spare roll of toilet paper and two small bars of off-label soap.
But you didn't come for name-brand suds. Here, higher than the turkey vultures sideslipping on updrafts over the canyon, you put binoculars to your eyes and marvel at what a million years of sculpting by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River created, abetted by the nearly ceaseless wind.
"The whole canyon is an erosional event," says park specialist Jeff Davis.
You can see it plainly. Boulders are tumbled down where softer supporting layers crumbled. Broken rock reveals remains of huge animals gone to fossil epochs ago. Slick slopes are so shattered by erosion that not even plants can hold on.
Landmarks disappear. Weather and water took the Kneeling Camel, Roman Nose and Devil's Tombstone formations, says Davis. Someday, the park's iconic Lighthouse pinnacle will fall, he adds, although, "We hope not soon."
Unimaginable tons of rock are gone from Palo Duro's great gouge. To where? "A lot of it winds up in the river," says park education director Bernice Blasingame.
"Things happen, and nobody sees it. The canyon changes all the time," she says. "Palo Duro is a constant work in progress."
You leave your rim aerie for a closer look and find a narrow, meandering, muddy river on the canyon floor instead of the imagined rock-grabbing torrent. Nature is a patient artist, it proves.
Mule deer, their big ears protruding like the namesake pack animal, graze beside the road. Wild turkeys strut in the Hackberry campground, the tom herding his harem toward hoped-for handouts. Golden-fronted woodpeckers sample seeds at feeders behind the trading post. Another 230 species of birds seasonally circulate, feed and nest in the brush and juniper, mesquite and cottonwood trees at the canyon.
Trails thread the gorge, many relatively flat, but all safest for sure-footed, well-watered early risers.
Reminders of cattle days, when the canyon was part of cowboy legend Charles Goodnight's ranch and the southern anchor of the famed Goodnight-Loving trail to Colorado, are corralled near the park entrance. Biscuit and Gravy, two in the official Texas longhorn herd, look up from the feed pellets Blasingame has brought them, adding historical color to the multihued landscape just down the road.
"The beauty of Palo Duro Canyon," Blasingame says, "is that it's so accessible if you want to drive through or stay. We don't forbid people from going anywhere in the park."
The road that dips into the canyon from the rim cabins leads back to them after explorations and the amphitheater's entertainment.
Beneath a sky spattered with countless stars, you sleep, snugged into the warm bed and lulled by nature's night whispers.
Below, the river continues to carve.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is about 375 miles northwest of Dallas.
It's 25 miles southeast of Amarillo via Interstates 40 and 27 and State Highway 217.
If you don't plan to stop in Amarillo for gas or groceries, Loop 335 south from I-40 near the airport on the city's eastern side connects to I-27 north of the turnoff to the park.
Southwest Airlines flies to Amarillo International Airport ().
The park cabins
Four people are allowed per cabin. Deposit is $50.
No cooking indoors. Picnic table outside; only a small occasional table indoors.
No pets allowed inside or tethered, crated or left in vehicle.
Reservations for cabins or camping: 512-389-8900; .
The Goodnight and Lighthouse cabins cost $110 per night plus tax and park entrance fee ($5 per person; free, 12 and younger).
The larger Sorenson cabin is $125 per night plus tax and park entrance fee.
Cow Camp cabins
Cost per cabin is $60 plus park fee.
Each of the four has a full-size bunk bed. Guests provide their own bedding. Sleeping on the stone floor would call for an air mattress.
No running water indoors. Toilets and showers about 100 yards across the road.
Cabin 4 is the most popular; it's farthest from traffic. Cabin 3 is next in demand. Reserve early for these.
Cabin 1 is handicapped-accessible.
The nearly-30,000-acre park has backpacking sites (accessible by hiking; fires not permitted; $12 for four persons), equestrian camping sites (corrals; restrooms nearby; $12 per site), primitive areas (restroom and shower a half-mile to two miles away; $12 per site) and electrical sites (tables, some shade shelters, fire ring, paved parking, water and electricity; $25 per site for two vehicles).
Where to eat
Other than the big burgers at the trading post and snacks or barbecue at Pioneer Amphitheater during the Texas season, there are no restaurants within the park. Bring your own food or drive 12 miles to Canyon to eat.
If you fly to Amarillo, rent a car and drive to the cabins, easy stops for groceries are the Wal-Marts at I-40 and Grand Avenue or I-27 South and Georgia Street.
Texas, the official state play, celebrates Panhandle pioneers of the 1800s. It's being performed at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday night through Aug. 15 at the outdoor Pioneer Amphitheater in the park. Tickets are $9.95 to $29.95. A steak dinner ($16.95 for adults; $12.70, 12 and younger) is served at 6 p.m. by Amarillo's Big Texan Steak Ranch. Backstage tours ($5) are available. Contact: 806-655-2181; .
The park will mark its 75th year during the July 4th weekend. Admission fees will be waived Saturday and Sunday. Texas will include a patriotic encore and additional fireworks July 4. Boz Scaggs will perform July 5 at Pioneer Amphitheater; tickets at www.texas-show.com. Park staff will offer special programs and hikes during the weekend.
Palo Duro State Park: 806-488-2227;
Texas Parks and Wildlife: