Encircling the perimeter of the 50,000-square-mile southern High Plains plateau given the name El Llano Estacado by Spanish explorers is an area that belies the common perception of the Great Plains as a region of minimal topographic relief. Popularly called the Caprock Canyonlands, this is a brightly colored landscape of red badlands, juniper breaks, and sandstone canyons reaching a depth of 800 feet. This canyon country began to form a million years ago when the westward-eroding Canadian, Red, Brazos, Colorado, and Pecos Rivers sliced into High Plains sediments washed down from the southern Rockies. By 100,000 years ago the Canadian and Pecos had cut to the base of the mountains, creating the Llano Estacado plateau. The central trio of rivers, however, has yet to breach the Llano Estacado. It is their erosion into the plateau, a process that continually exposes the water-bearing gravels of the Ogallala Aquifer, that has formed the present canyon systems of the Red River (Palo Duro, Mulberry, Tule, and the Little Red, Los Lingos, and Quitaque Canyons), the Brazos (Blanco, Yellow House, and Double Mountain Fork Canyons), and the Colorado (Muchaque Canyon).
As sources of water, timber, exposed geology, and often astonishing topography and coloring, the Caprock Canyonlands has played a critical role in human and natural history in the Great Plains. The draws feeding the canyonlands were centers of Clovis and Folsom cultures in the Great Plains, and the canyons themselves were famous rendezvous sites in the trade between Pueblo agriculturalists and Plains buffalo hunters. Coronado was the first European to describe them when he camped in Blanco Canyon in 1540. In the nineteenth century they served as the last sanctuary of the Comanches, Kiowas, and Southern Cheyennes, who were forced to reservations after the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon in 1874. Charles Goodnight proceeded to found his JA Ranch in Palo Duro in 1876. The canyons have largely remained in the hands of ranchers since.
In the twentieth century the Caprock Canyonlands played new roles in human society. The artist Georgia O'Keeffe's initial Western inspiration, for example, came from her encounters with Palo Duro during World War I. Preserving as they do the best remaining wildlands on the Southern Plains, since the 1930s these surprising canyons have increasingly been designated as state parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves of various kinds.
Dan Flores University of Montana
Flores, Dan L., and Amy Gormley Winton. Canyon Visions: Photographs and Pastels of the Texas Plains. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1989.