Tracking Time: Caprock Canyons Trailways
A former rail line sets the stage for time-travel adventure along the Caprock Canyons Trailway
By E. Dan Klepper
Travelers on the Caprock Canyons Trailway sometimes feel they’ve tipped time’s arrow on its head. Following the path of an abandoned rail line, the 64-mile trail system takes hikers,
cyclists, and equestrians across the region’s halcyon backyard, into the agrarian plains and broken rangeland of caprock country, and out of this century completely.
Railcars once clattered across tracks on this pastoral route—passing through the rural communities of South Plains, Quitaque, Turkey, and Estelline—enabling area farmers to ship their products and reap the benefits of bigger markets farther north. A Panhandle detour for the Burlington Northern Railroad, the branch line of the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway was completed in 1928 and served this slice of the Panhandle for six decades, until Burlington closed it in 1989.
Three years later, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming abandoned railway lines into a nationwide network of trails, removed the steel rails and wooden ties and resurrected the remaining berm as a hiking, biking, and equestrian trail. Once the Trailway was completed, the organization turned it over to Caprock Canyons State Park.
A 64-mile trail system that runs between Estelline and South
Plains, Caprock Canyons Trailway is administered by Caprock Canyons State Park.
Visitors must obtain a permit ($4, free ages 12 and younger) from the visitor
center at park headquarters before using the Trailway. The
Camping is allowed along the Trailway, but there is no water along the route, so you must cache water and supplies at the trailheads or carry in your supplies. Permanent outhouses are located near most of the trailheads.
For Trailway visitors who bring their own horses, the park offers an equestrian camping facility; each of the 12 sites has a set of horse pens. Each trailhead offers parking for vehicles and horse trailers. For information about renting horses in the area, contact the park.
After obtaining a permit from the park, you may access the
six sections of Caprock Canyons Trailway—the Quitaque Canyon Trail, Los Lingos
Trail, Kent Creek Trail, Oxbow Trail, Grundy Canyon Trail, Plains Junction
Trail—by means of 8 trailheads, all of which can be reached
Caution: Exposure to bats and their guano in the Clarity Tunnel (on the Quitaque Canyon Trail) may compromise your health. Do not linger in the tunnel, and avoid raising or breathing dust. Do not harass or handle bats—dead or alive. Do not make loud noises, throw objects at the bats, shine lights on them, or disturb them in any way.
The Trail From Estelline
While the most popular portion of the Caprock Canyons Trailway is the 22-mile section that begins at the South Plains Terminal (the westernmost trail-head) and goes through Clarity Tunnel, exploring the Trailway from the other direction has its own rewards.
Estelline Terminal (the eastern-most trailhead) marks the beginning of the 10-mile Plains Junction Trail.
The Plains Junction Trail ends at Parnell Station, where the 12-mile Grundy Canyon Trail begins. The region’s 250-million-year-old Permian geology, on view along the trail, is the star here, as exposed red-sandstone layers re-veal thousands of years of erosion and evidence of an ancient inland seabed.
At Tampico Siding, the Grundy Can-yon Trail connects with
the Oxbow Trail, a 10-mile roll through arcadian fields and across gully-spanning bridges where small mottes of native prairie
vegetation punctuate endless red furrows. Bison roamed here 150 years ago, but
today, feral hogs dominate all the way to Ox-bow’s end at Turkey. Travelers
should know that the 32-mile section from Estelline to Turkey receives minimal
maintenance, making this stretch of
The 10-mile Kent Creek Trail begins at the Turkey Depot, heading east across historic ranchlands. Rancher Charles Goodnight established the JA Ranch, home to 100,000 head of cattle, in the region in 1877. Goodnight also helped save the bison from extinction, rescuing a herd of the few remaining South Plains bison that once grazed the Panhandle Plains by the thousands. The Kent Creek Trail ends in Quitaque, where the Los Lingos Trail begins, followed by the Quitaque Canyon Trail, both described in the main story.
From the July 2012 issue.