By Andrew Stuart
The drive to Caprock Canyons State Park is a quintessential West Texas experience. Traveling northeast from Lubbock, one is swiftly submerged in an immensity unique to the Great Plains. Rural isolation increases, and you surrender to the scale of the great plateau, the Llano Estacado.
You pass through tiny towns, farming communities, their lush fields and historic buildings suggesting strong foundations. Only giant new wind turbines remind you you’re not in an earlier century.
A hundred miles, and you arrive at the Llano’s edge – the caprock. The feeling of time travel deepens. On rich prairie, beneath dazzling red cliffs, bison roam – the Texas state herd. At Caprock Canyons, you glimpse the plains as they were.
There are no population centers nearby. It’s not off a major highway. Isolated Caprock Canyons has remained largely overlooked even by outdoors enthusiasts. It’s been overshadowed by another Panhandle park – Palo Duro Canyon. For many visitors, part of Caprock’s magic is the sense of discovery.
Dawson Enloe is assistant superintendent. He says many visitors arrive without expectations – and are awed.
“Most people will tell you that they didn’t know this place was here,” Enloe said. “A lot of the people I talk to – ‘This is my first time I’ve been here – I never knew this place existed.’ It’s still that hidden gem feel.”
It’s stunning scenery. Amidst a prairie sea, Caprock is an island of form and color. Rocks of the Permian and Triassic past – more than 200 million years old – are exposed in dramatic redbeds. They glow in canyons, cliffs and rugged outcroppings.
The Great Plains were fundamentally altered by white settlement. Bison herds – tens of millions strong – were slaughtered, in part to crush the Plains Indians. Grazing practices eroded soils, and mesquite and juniper invaded former grasslands.
On Caprock’s 15,000 acres, park Supt. Donald Beard is leading prairie restoration.
Bison are part of that effort. The herd is a main attraction – and it has a unique history.
“It’s not just bison,” Enloe said, “but this belongs to the state of Texas, which belongs to the people of Texas. This is their herd. And the background of this herd is so deep, it’s like a history of Texas.”
Legendary cowman Charles Goodnight ranched nearby. Lore has it his wife Mary heard the bawling of six orphaned calves – the last remnant of the decimated southern bison herd. She convinced Charles to preserve the animals. The Caprock bison are their descendants.
The herd came here in 1997. First held in enclosures, they were loosed to roam the park in 2014. Today there are more than 150. Visitors must stay at least 50 yards from these wild, intimidating creatures.
Caprock has reintroduced another “keystone” prairie species. Prairie dog towns have been established in remote locations – and near the park’s largest campground, Honey Flats. Campground guests encounter the prairie dogs’ bustling communal life.
The Caprock secret is getting out. Since 2010, annual visitation has increased fourfold – from 25,000 to more than 100,000. But solitude can still be found. The park has 25 miles of trails – open to hiking, biking and equestrian use.
These plains were irresistible to nomadic hunters from the Ice Age through the 19th century, and Caprock contains a rich record of the Native American past. There’s an important site near the park’s spring-fed lakes. Ten thousand years ago, hunters drove Ice Age bison into a box canyon. From above, others dispatched the animals with spears. Archeologists found something remarkable here – hinting at ancient ritual traditions.
Le’Ann Pigg is park interpreter.
“They found a feature that was just a series of bison jawbones and leg bones, all in a man-made circular pattern, with a bison skull just to the side of it,” Pigg said. “It’s probably something ceremonial, but we don’t know that for sure.”
There are resources beyond the park itself. On the 64-mile Caprock Canyons Trailway, hikers, riders and cyclists take an epic journey through prairie and canyon. And the park provides guided tours to Clarity Tunnel. In summer, the abandoned railroad tunnel is home to half a million Mexican free-tailed bats. The evening bat flight is the Llano’s largest.
Caprock Canyons is a hidden gem among state parks. It’s also a window into the deep history of the West Texas plains.
Quitaque, near the park, hosts BisonFest Sept. 23. Proceeds from the live-music event support bison restoration. For more, visit bisonfest.com.