As you drive the winding road into Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway, the stereotypical views you expect to see in West Texas – the endless flat, scrubby landscape, an occasional windmill or oil derrick jutting up from the brown, parched earth – begin to fade away. In their place, the red and brown rock of the Caprock Escarpment sprout from the ground, almost surprisingly, as the High Plains of the Llano Estacado to the west transition to the low, rolling plains to the east.
The entire park is a feast for the senses, which is precisely why we came prepared to backpack some of the park’s 90 miles of trails.
Hit the Trail
The hike into the North Prong Primitive Camping Area was an easy half mile or so, and as we set up camp, the February wind beat at our tent, whipping and snapping the fly in an attempt to wrench it from our hands. The chill in the air was biting, and a quiet drizzle fell from the overcast sky.
Although my husband and I were in the company of friends (three in two tents accompanied us on the adventure), all of us made quick work of pitching our tents and cooking dinner and went to bed with the sun to escape the weather.
But all night, the wind beat and battered our shelters. Thin nylon snapped, and frames tilted and leaned in 40 mile per hour gusts. The roar was loud enough to disturb our slumber, and I was not the only one who tossed and turned all night, wondering if the wind running off with my tent fly would rudely awaken me later.
When the sun finally rose, the sky crisp and bright blue, the wind still refused to relent, and we donned all of our layers before crawling out from the cover of our tents. In the light of a clear day, we took a moment to appreciate the scenery around us: the juniper, scrub oak, cacti, and rocky red-brown canyons. Layers of red, orange, and white rock stretched and bent in sharp relief, creating the steep and mesmerizing canyons cut by ages of wind and water, the vibrant warm shades of the siltstone and mudstone in vibrant contrast with the cerulean sky.
But still, the wind raced over ridges and between canyons, causing us and our tents to lean. We had an easy five-mile hike ahead of us on the Upper North Prong Trail and Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail, a loop that would see us back at our campsite by mid-afternoon. The question we all vocalized to each other and debated at length before heading off for the day: Would our tents be safe alone in the wind?
We discussed taking them down and packing them up, but it seemed an unnecessary hassle. Someone wondered aloud if maybe we should just remove the poles and lay them flat, place some large rocks on top to keep them in place. Ultimately, however, we decided that if the tents could survive the beating they took all night long, provided there was enough weight inside each one to hold it down (sleeping bags, camp stoves, packs, extra gear, etc.), they should all be fine.
During the hike, we worried little. Any time anyone would bring up the subject, someone else (often me) would wave a hand in dismissal and utter, “They’ll be fine.”
So we hiked the landscape, watching it rise and fall in those strange angular shapes all around us, so much of it speckled with dessert greens like yucca and juniper. We laughed and shared stories and got closer to ledges than our mothers would have liked – especially considering gusts up to 40 miles per hour were still a frequent occurrence – in order to capture photos of the layered cliffs and the rocky canyon floor far beneath our feet. Every bend in the trail offered a thrilling new view until the last one.
Count the Tents
Still a half-mile or so from camp, we could just identify our campsite off in the distance. A few colorful objects (synthetic shades woven of nylon) were still specks on the landscape. There should have been three: yellow, blue, purple.
“I only see two,” someone said.
But that could not have been right. One of the tents could not have up and disappeared. I was worried it might be ours; we could not tell from this distance, and ours was the lightest and smallest of the three, and, in my mind, the most likely to suffer a tear that might send it tumbling.
But as we got closer, we realized that the third tent had not disappeared at all; it had just relocated – from its position securely staked to the earth to tangled in a nearby thorn bush. I was a little ashamed at my relief that it was not my tent but one of my comrade’s.
We rushed the last half mile and gasped at the shambles that was our campsite: one tent was stuck in a bush 20 feet away from where it had been staked; another was nearly folded in half; and then there was ours: neatly upright and bending gracefully against the wind.
We tried to help our friends repair the damage. The tent in the bushes was mostly fine, save for a foot-long tear in the side near the floor. I brought tape, but not quite enough. The other tent had suffered a pole that was bent in two places. Again, we offered our spare tent splint, an item we always carry after jerry-rigging too many snapped poles together, but the poles were at too severe an angle for that to work.
I started feeling a little guilty that my tent had been the only one to escape completely unscathed, but our companions seemed accepting, recalling the nearby small town of Turkey, home to the Turkey Hotel. They opted to make their way there for the night while we volunteered to stay behind and spend one more night in the outdoors.
A Winning Adventure
Oddly enough, almost as soon as they hiked out, the wind died and my husband and I were the only ones in the backcountry at Caprock Canyons that night. We sang, we danced, and we spent an hour gazing at the stars. When we hiked out and met back up with our hotel-bound friends the next morning, they told tales of a quirky town; exceedingly welcoming hosts; cold drinks; a warm, well-cooked meal that accommodated all of their dietary restrictions and an extremely gratifying experience. If they could not spend the night under the stars as planned, this ended up being a fabulous substitute.
We may not have gotten the adventure we had planned at Caprock Canyons State Park, but the one we got was just as thrilling: broken tent poles, torn nylon, unexpected hotel stays, and all. And we would go back in a heartbeat.
Visit Caprock Canyons
There are drive-up and primitive backcountry sites available, as well as equestrian campsites with corrals.
The small nearby towns of Quitaque and Turkey are closest, the latter of which is home to the warm and welcoming Turkey Hotel.
In addition to hiking, there is no-wake boating, swimming, and fishing on Lake Theo; trails for horseback riding and mountain biking; and bat viewing at Clarity Tunnel.