Amarillo; Heart of the Texas Panhandle
In the Texas Panhandle, the wind comes sweepin' down the plain. And so does a string of surprises, including interesting museums, sacred Native American spots, natural beauty, and the second-largest canyon in America.
Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, up to 20 miles wide, and over 800 feet deep! The 5.75-mile (round-trip) Lighthouse Trail is the most scenic hike to the top. Along the way, you'll pass gulches and gullies, tumbleweeds and striking rock formations, and an occasional cowboy. You'll walk beside steep walls layered with orange, red, brown, yellow, grey, maroon, and white, formed over 240 million years. You may also see wild turkey, white-tail and mule-deer, Barbary sheep, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, and roadrunners. And if you make it to the top, you'll come to the 310'-high rock tower called the "Lighthouse."
You can explore the Panhandle's diverse ecosystems at the 600-acre Wildcat Bluff Nature Center. You'll wander trails of knee-high grasses and cottonwood trees, past horned lizards and quail nests, crossing prairie and bluff with hawks circling overhead. You'll look down at a rolling panorama of wind-carved mountains and valleys. And you'll be standing on wagon ruts left by wagons on the Santa Fe Trail!
The Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument is a place of sacred, silent plains, where Native Americans - as long as 12,000 years ago - went to find the flint they converted into tools, ceremonial items, and weapons. As you walk up to the mesa overlooking the ancient quarries, you'll come upon rainbow-hued pieces of flint, ranging from pebbles to boulders.
Amarillo has several excellent museums, as well. At the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the history of this region comes alive in the stories of the tribes that roamed here for thousands of years, and the struggles of the early Anglo settlers. At the Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian, the Kwahadi Dancers bring to life the traditions of the Plains tribes, and the galleries feature works by well-known painters and potters.
It pays to arrive in this part of Texas with a Texas-sized appetite. The Stockyard Café serves breakfasts that can carry you until dinner, and the Acapulco Restaurant serves authentic Mexican specialties. At the Golden Light Cantina, the music's live and the specialty is a Panhandle staple called Frito Pies (red beans, sauce, and hot peppers piled on top of crunchy Fritos!).
The best-known Amarillo restaurant, though, is the Big Texan Steak Ranch.
Elaborate Western chandeliers, dripping with horns, hang over long tables. The "Big Texan Singers" belt out their classics. There's a shooting gallery - indoors. A caged, live rattlesnake. Horned deer and elk heads hanging on every wall. The biggest (wooden) bull in Texas. And a colorful, non-stop parade of customers (including cowboys).
A half-million people a year come here to enjoy calf-fries (ask what they are before you try them!); "Mountain Oysters" ("If you think it's seafood...go with the shrimp."); breaded, deep-fried jalapenos called Howlers (also Blazin' Saddles and Ring of Fire); Texas-hot chili; and homemade fudge. Most people, though, come to the Big Texan for the steak. Chicken-fried. Prime rib. Ribeye. Strip. T-bone.
The specialty of the house is the 72-ouncer. And if you can finish it in an hour or less, it's free. Over the years, some 62,000 people have tried; less than 9,000 (one in seven) have succeeded.
Amarillo's filled with surprises. In many ways, it's the real Texas. The Texas of the land and the open spaces, where the echoes of history still reverberate very loudly.