Caprock Canyons Trailway Ranger, Clyde Dudley, keeps careful watch over the 64-mile trail and its spectacular scenery. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The Real Texas: Caprock Canyons Trailway
Rails to Trails
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Forrest MacCormack
History pulses along the Caprock Canyons Trailway as it courses by ancient flatlands, wild canyons and authentic, old Texas towns.
On October 20, 1541, Franciso Vasquez de Coronado wrote to the King of Spain, describing the remarkable landscape he had encountered during his exploration of the American Southwest. The Spanish adventurer had come upon the Llano Estacado, a huge mesa spanning northern Texas and eastern New Mexico. “I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues,” he wrote. “With no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea…there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”
As I stand at the western end of the 64-mile Caprock Canyons Trailway nearly half a millennium later, I can see pretty much what Coronado saw on his fruitless search for the Seven Cities of Gold: perfectly flat grasslands sprawling to the western horizon with little interruption, save for the neatly ordered rows of corn, sorghum, wheat, peanuts and cotton. But once I head east a couple of miles on the trail’s wide gravel bed, following the path blazed by thousands of modern explorers on bicycle, horseback and foot, I encounter a different view altogether. The plateau drops off dramatically to another kind of rough country-rolling hills and valleys. Those contrasting vistas are the calling cards of this Texas rail-trail, colored by the direct connection to deep history and richly ornamented by such picturesque railroad artifacts as the 46 bridges and one tunnel. But for some of us, it’s the privilege of savoring sweet isolation and absolute solitude that puts the Caprock Canyons Trailway in a class of its own.
To navigate this spacious open country, travelers of yore needed something, anything, to help them figure out exactly where they were. Coronado began a history of references to the tabletop plain’s few landmarks as “stakes,” thus the name Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains. A jagged 300-mile-long palisade, known as the Caprock Escarpment, that runs southwest to northeast divides the higher Llano from the rolling plains below, and there’s no better place than the trailway to witness this geological transition of the famous Red River Valley The “breaks” are particularly vivid two miles east of South Plains, a vaguely defined settlement at the rail-trail’s western end, where the high plateau drops-up to 300 feet in some places-forming red dirt canyons pocked with arroyos, washes, pour-offs, and even hidden creek bottoms bristling with cottonwoods, willows, oaks, pecans and mesquite. During rare wet periods, there’s even a waterfall or two. It’s the stuff of a Western movie. Only this is the real thing.
Since ancient times, the Caprock canyons and the Llano above them have been nomadic country. The land is too tough, too harsh ever to be really settled. Prehistoric peoples moved through with the seasons. Modern Plains Indians, notably the Apache and Comanche, traded with comancheros, people of Mexican descent in New Mexico. Briefly, ciboleros, New Mexican hunters, moved into the area, following in the footsteps of the Native Americans to hunt the plains buffalo, and doing it so efficiently that they killed them off. Third and fourth generation descendents of Anglo pioneer ranchers and farmers still work the land, trying to hang on.
Tomas Hinojosa, Quitaque Riding Stables owner, leads a pack of trail riders in Caprock Canyons State Park. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The ideal way to get a feel for this wild country is to cycle, hike or ride horseback along the Caprock Canyons Trailway at a pace similar to that of the people who moved through here centuries ago. Buzz through the still-wild frontier by car at 70 mph and you miss the nuances. The distant honk of a sandhill crane on a clear, mild winter’s day. The crackle of branches signaling a family of white-tailed deer or pronghorn antelope moving through the brush. The sight of a young rattlesnake sunning on the trail a few feet from a horned lizard that skitters into the grass. The sudden flap of quail flushed out of the tall grass by the sound of a bike tire rolling on a cinder path. Paw prints and scat on the trail, vivid evidence of mountain lion or bobcat nearby.
A little knowledge of the past, whether measured in geological time or on the more fleeting human scale, will summon ghosts-of cataclysmic floods and creeping erosion; of buffalo herds rumbling across barren valleys; of migrating flocks on the Central Flyway above; of Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief; of Charles Goodnight, the first mythic rancher of the Texas Panhandle; and of the spring cattle drives from Matador Ranch, a few miles south, all the way up to the South Saskatchewan River in Canada, one of the longest, most storied livestock migrations in the cowboy kingdom.
The railroad arrived in 1928, late by Western standards. Denver Road general manager Frank Clarity promoted the idea of a South Plains spur of the Fort Worth-Denver railway to connect the cotton and farming hub of Lubbock, Texas, with the town of Estelline on the railroad’s main route. He was honored by having the tunnel on the new line named in his honor. But the Fort Worth-Denver South Plains Railroad didn’t last long. The growth of the trucking industry and a declining agricultural base made the line a luxury for its parent company, Burlington Northern, to operate. The line was abandoned in 1989.
When the railroad pulled out, local citizens already were ruminating about the idea of converting the corridor to a one-of-a-kind trail. The late OR. Stark, Jr., a banker and local booster in the little town of Quitaque (pronounced “Kitty-Kway,” and named by Charles Goodnight after the Indian word for “end of the trail”), along with two area pastors, since departed, organized grassroots support for the rail-trail, while the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department took the initiative on the state level. They figured the trailway would complement the newly opened, 14,000-acre Caprock Canyons State Park and could be maintained and operated by the park’s staff. Residents of the three farming and ranching towns along the trailway-Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline-were behind the concept, since each was losing population (a plight common to small towns throughout the Great Plains). With no industry or natural resources to promise salvation, tourism via the trailway was a last, best hope.
“O.R. Stark saw the natural beauty of the Caprock and knew it would be an asset, not just for the community but the whole area,” his son, Randy, says. “The hardest part about making it happen was all the waiting. It took two years to get it going, mostly because he had to deal with the state”; navigating through a government bureaucracy takes time.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) eventually stepped in to help the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department acquire the rail corridor for recreational use, funneling federal funds for infrastructure improvements to the state through federal transportation ISTEA grants. For its part, Burlington Northern was happy to donate the land, structures and trestles once the rails had been sold for salvage.
In 1993 the Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park was officially dedicated. The rail-trail is composed of six segments, five to 17 miles long, and has eight access points along the way. The first two segments, Quitaque Canyon Trail and Los Lingos Trail, extend 22 miles from South Plains to the town of Quitaque. The most scenic stretch, Quitaque Canyon, traverses the escarpment and passes through one of the few railroad tunnels in Texas. South of Quitaque, the Los Lingos Trail crosses the Valley of Tears, so named for the sobs of captured Anglo pioneer women and children being held by the Comanches before being sold off to the comanchero traders of Mexican descent and taken west into New Mexico.
Interpretive markers on the trailway lay out all the details.
The 10-mile Kent Creek segment that runs along the trickling creek bed links the towns of Quitaque and Turkey, each sporting populations of about 500. The trail’s 32-mile eastern half, running from Turkey to Estelline, population 150, cuts through soft hills and valleys-prime Texas ranch and farmland. On the 12-mile Grundy Canyon Trail segment, between Tampico Siding and Parnell Station, wide-angle views encompass the Cap rock Escarpment all the way to the banks of the Red River. And on the easternmost Plains Junction Trail segment, just outside Estelline, wild turkey and pronghorn antelope are frequently spotted.
While the entire trail can be done in a day, my wife, Kris, and I opted to start at South Plains and ride the Cap downhill into Quitaque. Roland Hamilton, Quitaque mayor and owner of the Caprock Home Center hardware store, shuttled us up to our starting point. As we cruised up the road to South Plains, Hamilton shared a little lore, mostly about the Valley of Tears and the Ozark Trail. (Founded in 1911 by a man from Arkansas, the Ozark Trail ultimately spawned Route 66, the storied Mother Road that linked the Midwest to the West Coast. There’s still an Ozark Trail marker to be seen in Tampico, if you know where to look, Hamilton told us, and another buried under the highway in the middle of Quitaque that folks talk about digging up someday and putting on display.)
Once on the trail, Kris and I saw not another soul for four hours, save for a man and a boy crouched above the entrance to Clarity Tunnel. They told us they’d arrived early for the evening bat emergence. Every night from March to October, they explained, up to 50,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats exit the tunnel en masse, spiraling into the sky for their evening meal of insects. While the phenomenon also attracts the interest of coyotes, raccoons, snakes and raptors, we didn’t stick around to witness the amazing emergence, but walked our bicycles through the 582-foot-long tunnel, half expecting a band of outlaws on horseback to meet us midway.
Throughout our ride, we kept a slow, purposeful pace, pausing on the bridges to examine the gullies and creek beds below, and stopping more than once to savor total silence, a sensation known to precious few city folk. That alone was worth the price of admission.
We made it to Quitaque as darkness fell, in time to chow down at the Sportsman’s Cafe and relive our afternoon on the trail. After dinner, we packed it in for the night at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse, too tired to do much but go outside to look at stars, then crawl into bed.
Next morning we headed over to Caprock Canyons State Park, in the heart of canyon country, three miles north of Quitaque. We could have spent the day riding there, since there are more than 30 miles of paved roadways and off-road bike trails to negotiate among the spectacular red rock formations. Instead, we drove around, hoping to spot the official state buffalo herd, which lives behind a high fence in one corner of the park. The rarely seen bison are descended from the herd Charlie Goodnight put together from remnants of the southern herd that once roamed the Great Plains.
Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline offered eerie evidence of the steady depopulation of the Great Plains over the past half-century. Each town’s main street summoned visions of Larry McMurtry’s “Last Picture Show”-blocks of sturdy, red brick storefronts, most of which have been boarded up and deserted. The buildings have outlasted the people they were built to shelter. Now they stand as mute monuments to another time. With no resources to pluck, the water table of the Ogallala Aquifer steadily being lowered, and the vast expanse subjected to some of the most extreme weather on earth (the trailway is in the heart of Tornado Alley), it’s safe to say Caprock Canyons is in no danger of being overrun by seekers of the Next Best Place, nor is Quitaque destined to become the next Moab. For me, that was beguiling, as much a draw to biking the trailway as the scenic plenty.
Sure, it would have been nice to dial up a bike shop on the cell phone when Kris blew her tire near Clarity Tunnel. A place to eat that serves fresh greens would be okay, too. The upside to the absence of those amenities was an up-close and personal encounter with an authentic, rural Texas that is getting harder and harder to find.
Along the trailway, that authentic Texas was everywhere. Staying at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse was like visiting the rural Texas grandparents we never had. The Hotel Turkey is that rare railroad hotel that hasn’t been gussied up too much; it still functions like a railroad hotel, just without the railroad. The breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros at Galvan’s Mexican Food in Turkey were as filling and autentico a breakfast as I can find in Falfurrias, 600 miles south. The Midway Drive-In halfway between Turkey and Quitaque, one of the last four drive-in movie theaters in Texas that still show first-run movies in the summer, was straight out of “American Graffitti.” The western horizon at sunset, which lit up the sky with streaks of flaming reds, oranges and pinks, was just like the one buffalo hunters and seekers of gold must have seen: glorious, radiant and unsullied.
The few people who do live along the trailway are some of the friendliest folks I’ve met traveling across Texas. Take Wilburn Leeper, the 67-year-old former mayor of Quitaque and president of the Caprock Bike Club, who’s racked up probably more miles riding the trailway than anyone else. Leeper appreciates the big views and isolation of the trailway. That’s why he is involved with Caprock Partners, the organization that helps support the state park and trailway, and helps run the group’s moonlight ride on the trailway every fall. “It’s the expanse of it all,” he says dreamily, explaining why he’s become hooked on cycling the route whenever he can. “It seems like you can ride forever.”
Or Randy Stark, a banker like his daddy, who considers the trailway the region’s calling card. “1 saw last year where Caprock Canyons State Park had 115,272 visitors. That’s quite a bit to be passing through a town of this size. That shows what a tourism economy can do, especially with the farm economy the way it is. We like having visitors, but we still want the slow, country way of life too. We get a little of both here in Quitaque,” says Stark. “I’m a photographer,” he adds. “What I enjoy most is all the scenic spots, all the canyons, and how the light is always changing how they look.” Since he tries to capture scenes at the end of the day, when the lighting contrast is sharpest, he’s been exposed to the calls of the wild. “1 hear coyotes howling all the time. If you’re on the trail at sunset, I guarantee you’ll hear the coyotes. I’ve heard as many as six at once, howling and barking away. One night on a full-moon ride with a club from Dallas, someone recognized the cry of a mountain lion. And wild turkey-you can find them mostly in the creek beds towards the latter part of the day.”
Or Raymond Roy, an Amarillo accountant who has spent so much of his free time around Quitaque, fishing, hunting and just kicking back, that he finally bought the Sportsman Cafe, Quitaque’s social hub and culinary heart and soul. When Kris and I ate dinner there, Roy took it upon himself to come over to our table and introduce himself. “1 knew you weren’t from around here,
when I saw her taking her purse with her to the salad bar,” he said, nodding to Kris. Locals don’t need to fear for their valuables, because everyone knows everyone else. “1 just wanted to make you feel at home,” Roy said. It’s hard to be a stranger on this rail-trail.
By the time we headed south toward home, we were making plans for a return trip in the fall. That’s the sweetest season of them all, according to Randy Stark, with warm days, cool nights and none of the wind or violent weather that defines springtime on the plains. Kris was ready to buy up half the downtowns of Quitaque and Turkey, drawing up plans for each building in her mind. Me, I was still buzzing, happy to have savored the real Texas few Texans get to know or see.
BEFORE YOU GO: Bring your own water, food and tire repair kit. In summer, pay heed to the extreme heat advisory included in your trail map. Although there are pay telephones at six stations along the trail, a cell phone comes in mighty handy. Fall is prime time, weather-wise.
GETTING THERE: Lubbock, the closest gateway with regularly scheduled air service, is 69 miles southwest of South Plains, the western terminal of the trailway, via State Highway 207 South and U.S. Highway 62 South and West. The Caprock Canyons Trailway is easily accessible from U.S. Highway 287 at Estelline, 101 miles southeast of Amarillo, and 238 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Quitaque, at the junction of State Highway 86 and Farm to Market Road 1065, is 98 miles southeast of Amarillo, via U.S. 287 to Claude, State Highway 207 to Silverton (a scenic route that cuts across Palo Duro Canyon, the second biggest gaping maw in the United States), and State Highway 86 East.
TRAIL ACCESS AND EQUIPMENT: The trailway is maintained and managed by Caprock Canyons State Park. You can buy trailway entrance permits ($3 per person) at park headquarters. There are eight trailhead access points with parking areas, spaced about 10 miles apart along the 64-mile trailway. The most popular trailheads are in Estelline, at the eastern terminal of the trail on U.S. Highway 287; at Quitaque; at Monk’s Crossing, 4.5 miles east of the Clarity Tunnel; and in South Plains, at the western end of the trailway.
If you want to do the trail the old-fashioned way, on horseback, contact Quitaque Riding Stables (806-455-1208). Queen of the Valley Tours (806-983-3639) offers guided tours of the Quitaque Canyons and Los Lingos trail segments on an old school bus.
For bicycle rentals, shuttles and repair kits, contact Roland Hamilton at the Caprock Center hardware store in Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260).
WHERE TO STAY: Roland Hamilton’s spacious family farmhouse about two miles east of Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260) is comfortable, and a real bargain at $50 for two. The house has nine guest beds, and porches from which to watch both sunrise and sunset.
More upscale accommodations are at the Quitaque Quail Lodge B&B (806-455-1261), a country-style, ranch house and hunting lodge featuring a swimming pool, tennis court and hiking trails.
The Hotel Turkey (806-423-1151, www.turkeybb.com) in Turkey is a 1927 railroad hotel that was converted to a bed-and-breakfast, though the rocking chairs on the front porch remain.
There are seven designated backcountry campsites on the trailway, plus campgrounds with RV hookups and additional backcountry campsites at Caprock Canyons State Park near Quitaque.
WHERE TO EAT: The Hotel Turkey cooks dinners on weekends. The Saturday night special is mesquite-grilled steak with all the trimmings; two-day advance reservation only.
Groups of 20 or more can enjoy Comanchero breakfasts and Chuckwagon suppers at Joe and Virginia Taylor’s Circle Dot Ranch (www.circledotranch.com), a working cattle ranch five miles from South Plains (March through October, by advance reservation only).
OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Caprock Canyons State Park schedules wildflower walks, history and nature tours, star parties and other events throughout the year.
The Bob Wills Museum in Turkey features memorabilia of the King of Western Swing, the Texas original fusion of jazz, swing and country. The Turkey Heritage Association stages a free talent showcase jamboree at the Bob Wills Center the first Saturday of every month. Celebrating its native son, Turkey goes full-tilt boogie on Bob Wills Day, the last Saturday of April.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park c/o Caprock Canyons State Park (P.O. Box 204, Quitaque, TX 79255-0204, 806-455-1492, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/caprock/caprock.htm), Quitaque Chamber of Commerce (www.fnbquitaque.com), Turkey Chamber of Commerce (www.turkeytexas.com). For more cycling information, visit the West Texas Cycling Web site (wtcycling.com).