Caprock Canyon offer campers, hikers authentic outdoor experiences
by SARA MARSHALL//Editor-in-Chief
QUITAQUE, TX – Early morning sunlight paints the canyon walls in bright hues of red and pink. A cool breeze shakes the branches of a withered mesquite tree, lifeless in comparison to the surrounding nature.
The sudden movement stirs the wildlife from their slumber. Bison calves call for their mothers, hungry after a night of fasting. Owls and bats settle into their dark homes, avoiding the coming day.
Hikers begin stirring from their sleeping bags, greeted by the cool air and morning dew, ready for a day of traversing trails and exploring the expansive canyons.
Caprock Canyons State Park is the authentic outdoor experience campers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts have been searching for.
There are 11 employees on staff at the park helping this magic happen. Half of the employees are office staff, ordering and budgeting necessities, checking campers and park-goers in, issuing park passes and overseeing the park’s gift store. The other half of park staff are those who work in the field as park rangers, ensuring the safety of park-goers, maintaining the natural wonder of the native wildlife and conducting maintenance when necessary.
The Canyon has everything: breathtaking views, amazing wildlife, horse and hiking trails ranging in difficulty from easy to extremely difficult. It also features the region’s only bison herd.
In an attempt to save the majestic animals, Charles Goodnight, Texas rancher, cattleman and business tycoon, started the remnants of the herd on his JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle in 1878. Goodnight’s wife was the main driving force behind preserving the herd before they disappeared, so future generations would be able to see and appreciate the bison.
Decades later, decedents of Goodnight’s bison herd managed to survive against all odds. The herd was initially donated to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and moved to Caprock Canyons in 1997.
After the park conducted genetics testing on the herd, it was discovered that their DNA was different, featuring genetics that are not shared by any other bison in North America. In fact, the Official Texas State Bison Herd at Caprock represents the last remaining examples of the Southern Plains variety.
It is the responsibility of Texas Park Rangers, such as Park Superintendent Donald Beard, to ensure the herd’s survival.
“Upkeep for the bison herd isn’t near as much as it used to be,” Beard said. “Up until a few years ago, we had to keep them separated in the back, where we were really doing a lot of scientific work with them, like their breeding program. We had some issues with our genetic diversity.”
These genetic issues have been remedied through extensive work with breeders and scientists alike, trying to diversify the herd’s bloodline.
“So now we have basically taken them from a cattle production model and turned them back into wildlife,” Beard said. “Now we’ve released [the bison] into the park, so they have about 12,000 acres to roam in the park. You can see them anywhere in the park at any time. It’s pretty awesome, and people really enjoy that.”
For Beard, the process of releasing the bison back into the park through the wildlife restoration project was not just part of his job, but an honor. His work with the bison is not quite done, though.
“There’s always going to be some sort of management with them,” Beard said. “They don’t have free access, because they are kept inside the park. We will have to do an annual roundup to do health checks. And we’ll continue to do genetic work on them, and we will have to do culling at some point. So I mean there will always have to be some management at some point. We try to keep it as hands-off as possible. We want them to be wildlife as opposed to an exhibit like at a zoo.”
Because the bison are wildlife, the importance of following proper safety precautions is stressed by all park rangers and staff members. Due to thorough education and safety materials, park-goers have never reported an incident of human-animal conflict, meaning that no one has been hurt and no cars have been damaged in any way by a bison.
“The education component of being safe is very important,” said Beard, “and we try to educate everyone that comes in that these are dangerous animals and that they can hurt you, and you need to keep your distance. We still have people who think they need to get a little closer and take a photograph. We have two law enforcement officers at the park, myself and my assistant manager. And we’re pretty hardcore about enforcing that. That’s something we don’t play around with, because people can get hurt easily. And not only the people, but you have to think of the health of the animal. But most people who come to this park understand that situation.”
At Caprock Canyons, the bison are definitely the biggest attraction. But other types of wildlife living in the park include prairie dogs, bobcats, bats and other Texas native animals.
The park also offers outdoor enthusiasts the chance to truly embrace nature, according to Beard. “We pride ourselves on having a rugged outdoor, natural experience here, as opposed to other state parks where there’s a lot of development and buildings and that type of thing,” Beard said. “We don’t have a lot of development in the park – it’s all natural. So this is a place you come if you want to just envelope yourself in nature.”
The only development within Caprock Canyons begins at the Visitor’s Center and continues to the RV Camper area.
“There are camping facilities, bathroom facilities, showers and all that stuff,” Beard said. “So when you drive down past the camper area and go down, from that point on, there’s no electricity. And that’s what makes this park so unique and awesome – that it’s basically the way it’s been forever.”
There are 90 miles of trails inside the park, which can be enjoyed either by foot traffic, bicycle or equestrian. The longest trail offered is the Caprock Canyons State Park Trailway, which runs 65 miles. This trail begins at Clarity Tunnel and requires various camping and park permits to camp and hike along the trail, due to safety concerns.
As far as camping in the great outdoors, park-goers have the choices of regular (water and electricity), basic (water only) and primitive sites. There are also eight equestrian campsites offered, which feature horse corrals.
The best way to experience the wonder of the canyons is to go camping with friends at the primitive campsites, such as South Prong Primitive Site, or hike the Canyon Loop and Upper Canyon Trails early in the morning and explore the Fern Cave.
However, Beard stresses for all park-goers to be prepared.
“It’s a bigger place than you think,” Beard said. “It’s a wild place. And it gets hot. Make sure you have plenty of water. Make sure you’ve got the right footwear, because it is a rocky terrain. We do a lot of search and rescues out here. People get off the trail, or people slip and fall because they don’t have the right shoe on. Or they get overheated because they don’t bring enough water.”
Beard also suggests that hikers should carry a map and compass with them to ensure no one loses sight of the correct trails. He also suggests keeping a cell phone handy.
“During the summertime is when we have the most incidents,” Beard said. “It’s really hot, and it’s rare when we don’t have a weekend without at least one or two incidents. Even though you don’t have cellphone service down in the bottom of the canyon, if something happens, you can climb up on one of the hills and get to a point where you do.”
The busy season for Caprock Canyons begins during Spring Break and ends around Thanksgiving.
There are several events offered by the park, such as monthly bird walks. During the month of October, there is an archeology presentation and the Fall Foliage Tour. During Spring Break, the park hosts events geared toward families and children.
Trying to include all generations of park-goers, Caprock and Quitaque host the Bison Festival the last weekend of September. Bison Fest is an all-day music festival showcasing Texas music acts, local art, crafts and food vendors.
The Caprock Canyons State Park Facebook page provides users with updates on upcoming events and specials at the park.
“We love to have young adults come out and have a good time,” Beard said. “This is the perfect place to come if you want to envelope yourself in nature, get back to nature. Find your inner self.”