Two Miles from Hell…

Palo Duro Canyon trailside view | Photo credit: Justin Moore

Location: Palo Duro Canyon State Park (Canyon, Texas)
Time of Year: Late July
Weather: Sunny and hot, high 100+ degrees
Activities: Hiking, photography

Palo Duro Canyon State Park is, by far, one of the most beautiful Texas parks we have had the pleasure to visit. After spending the prior three days in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, we found the rugged canyonlands of Palo Duro provided an especially stark and memorable contrast. In just ten hours of highway travel, the snow-capped mountains surrounding Estes Park, Colorado, gave way to the vibrant red, purple, yellow, and orange hues of Palo Duro’s 800-foot-high canyon walls. Sounds heavenly, right?

When we began our hike at 9 AM, temperatures were already creeping into the mid-90’s. At approximately 2.5 miles in length (5 miles round-trip), the Lighthouse Trail requires three to four hours to hike. Back home in South Texas, Justin and I routinely wake up at 5 or 6 AM to reach our hiking destinations when they open at 8 AM; ideally, this allows us to complete dayhikes before the worst heat of the day (noon to 4 PM). Canyon hiking in Texas’ Panhandle, we soon discovered, poses some unique challenges at any hour.

There’s a reason the park store sells T-shirts with the slogan:

“30 miles from water, 2 miles from hell”

Armed with one liter of water per person, the six of us set off down the Lighthouse Trail, marveling at the view as we went. With the exception of the last .2 miles of trail, the entire hike is deceptively easy, consisting of a relatively gentle grade over hard-packed clay and occasional sand. We hiked at a fairly swift pace, stopping only briefly while Justin took photographs. Our pace ground to a near-standstill at the 2.3-mile marker where the trail becomes extremely steep and difficult to negotiate. Trail’s end brought two rewards — a steady breeze and the 75-foot-tall Lighthouse formation looming directly before our eyes.

We took a much-needed pause atop the trail to drink our water and relax. After fifteen minutes or so, we headed back down the trail. It was about noon, and the temperature was at or just shy of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Much of the return hike is extremely sketchy for me, as I began experiencing heat exhaustion, bordering on heat stroke. Make no mistake about it, this is not a bit of playful exaggeration; for a time, I honestly did not think I would make it back to the trailhead. I wish to thank Justin, Karen, and the rest of our group for ensuring we all completed the hike safely.

As an avid outdoorsperson with more than a touch of stubbornness, I felt keenly disgusted with myself after the hike. How could I have felt so ill, when I hike regularly year-round in South Texas? The Sierra Club Guide to Backpacking offers one explanation:

“…an attack of hyperthermia (heat stroke) is a signal to take it easy: the body has tried to handle a taxing combination of effort and heat, and failed. How did it fail? Probably by being unable to sweat profusely enough. In hot-weather hiking, one may have to perspire over two quarts an hour to stay healthily cool. Hardly anybody can do this on the first hot hike of the season. But as time goes on the body adapts to heat stress….An otherwise fit hiker needs about a week of intermittent exercise in a hot climate to make this adjustment. If you plan to hike the desert in the warmer part of the year, bear this in mind.”

I’ve had that book since I started hiking on a regular basis over two and a half years ago. Living the experience first-hand, however, proved to be a far better teacher.

“One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning.” — James Russell Lowell

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