Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park, in Armstrong and Randall counties twelve miles east of Canyon on Texas Highway 217, covers 16,402 acres of scenic geological strata and formations that are estimated to be several million years old. Palo Duro Canyon has been a popular camping and picnic spot since the late 1880s. One of the first acts of the Canyon City Commercial Club after its organization in December 1906 was to pass a resolution asking for a national park in the upper canyon. In 1908, and again in 1911 and 1915, Congressman John H. Stephens of Wichita Falls introduced a bill calling for the establishment of a "national forest reserve and park" in Palo Duro Canyon, but disputes between the Agriculture and Interior departments, along with the unique problems of Texas lands, prevented its passage. Questions over land ownership also stalemated early efforts by the state legislature to establish a park. Around 1924 Phebe K. Warner enlisted the aid of David E. Colp, first chairman of the State Parks Board, and by 1929 the Palo Duro Park Association, composed of representatives of fifteen Panhandle counties, had begun to hold regular strategy sessions. Boosters from both the Amarillo and Canyon chambers of commerce hosted automobile excursions to the canyon's west rim in the summer and fall of 1930. Fred A. Emery, a Chicago businessman and an officer in the Byers Brothers Livestock Commission Company of Kansas City, actually initiated the park by making arrangements through the company to purchase a little more than 15,000 acres of canyonland. He agreed to transfer most of it to the state by means of a proposed loan to the State Parks Board from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to be repaid from park-operation income. But when the National Park Service designated the proposed Palo Duro Canyon Park as a promising Civilian Conservation Corps project site, an RFC loan became unnecessary-although the legislature had quickly passed, and governor Miriam A. Ferguson had signed, the essential enabling act. In 1933, through an elaborate system of liens, more than 15,000 acres of Palo Duro Canyon was conveyed to the Parks Board, which agreed to service the debt through user fees.
As the Great Depression heightened in March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the establishment of four CCC camps of about 200 men each to work in the canyon for a period of five months. The park acreage was increased to its present size to better accommodate the CCC crews, who built El Coronado Lodge and six other cabins of native stone. These buildings were designed by Guy A. Carlander, an Amarillo architect and one of the park's leading boosters. In addition, the CCC added a water system, several bridges and concrete river crossings, and various improvements in roadways and trails. A large stone reservoir, built at the park's north end and named for James O. Guleke, who suggested the name Goodnight Memorial Trail for the park road, was of short duration. In all, the federal government and National Park Service spent about $2 million on CCC construction. In 1936 a three-person Parks Advisory Board was set up by the State Parks Board to govern Palo Duro Park; it continued until the expiration of its term. The CCC camps remained until December 1937. From that time on, tourism in the park gradually increased. During the 1940s the state was able to purchase the rest of the upper canyon with money obtained through a public bond issue. Within nineteen years, entrance fees had helped repay the thirty-five-year loan Fred Emery had set up. Journalist John L. McCarty and his wife assumed operation of the park concessions in 1949 and were instrumental in importing deer, buffalo, and Texas longhorns. The Goodnight Memorial Trail was paved in 1951 as Park Road 5. The Pioneer Amphitheatre was completed in 1964.
Texas Highway 217 is the most direct route to the park east of Canyon. The eight-mile drive from the rim to the canyon floor, which follows the approximate path that Charles Goodnight took when he established his Old Home Ranch in 1876, drops 800 feet in slightly over a mile. A herd of longhorn cattle, offspring of the Fort Griffin herd, grazes on the rim. The stone entrance station and a chimney that was once part of a recreation hall are the most vivid reminders of the CCC days. The old El Coronado Lodge has been remodeled and enlarged into an interpretive center depicting the canyon's history, geology, flora, and fauna. Along with overnight camping and picnicking facilities, there are riding stables, hiking trails to the "Lighthouse" and other canyon landmarks, the Goodnight Trading Post (gift shop and concession stand), and a covered wagon ride that follows the route of the Sad Monkey Railroad, a defunct miniature train ride named for a geological formation on nearby Triassic Peak. A sky ride operated at the park for a short time. Historical markers and a reconstruction of what is thought to have been Goodnight's original dugout abode have been erected. Paul Green's musical drama Texas, presented each summer at the Pioneer Amphitheatre, attracts thousands of visitors.