The panhandle plains of Texas are a scenic slice of the Lonestar State where you’ll find cowboys, steak houses, rodeos and a spectacular canyon.
By Suzanne Corbett

Cowboy Up. It’s more than words on a souvenir T-shirt. It’s a lifestyle rooted in Western culture where cowboy hats, boots, chaps and spurs remain the dress code.

Guests at the Elkins Ranch Cowboy Morning experience can enjoy music. Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council photo
The panhandle plains have remained picturesque and its cattle ranches have changed little over the last 100 years. Cowboys still rope, brand and drive cattle to the Amarillo Livestock Auction, one of the country’s largest cattle markets.

From Palo Duro–the nation’s second-largest canyon–to museums, rodeos and steak houses, Panhandle Texas visitors can experience the romance of the West. Just saddle up and ride Interstate 40 west. You’ll find a howdy and a handshake waiting.

Rodeo roundup

“Step into the real West” is the standing invitation from the Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council. Texas Panhandle cowboy traditions are not just preserved but practiced daily in Amarillo. Roping, riding and branding are real skills used on every working ranch and are featured yearly at the World Championship Ranch Rodeo.

“We’re the real deal,” said Randy Whipple, president of the Working Ranch Cowboy Association (WRCA). Events, such as bronc riding, mimic what working cowboys do on the job.

“Unlike other rodeos, WRCA rodeos are based on real ranch work. We rope, brand and bronc ride–but we don’t ride bulls. Real working cowboys don’t ride bulls, they herd them.”

WRCA sanctioned rodeos are held throughout the Southwest with the world championships staged each November at the Amarillo Civic Center (401 S. Buchanan). This year’s event will be Nov. 8–11.

Each June brings Cowboy Roundup USA and the World Championship Chuck Wagon Roundup to Amarillo’s Tri-State Fairgrounds. This three-day event celebrates the lifestyle of the American cowboy and the Old West.

Saddling up

Palo Duro Canyon remains the pre-eminent preserve for the area’s natural and western history. From 1876-90, most of the canyon belonged to the JA Ranch under the operation of Charles Goodnight. According to Civil War lore, Goodnight created the original chuck wagon.

Today, Palo Duro is maintained as a Texas state park, and it offers visitors more than spectacular views from the canyon rim. A good way to discover the state’s largest natural wonder, which encompasses more than 25,000 acres, is on horseback.

Palo Duro’s Old West Stables hire out real Texas cowboys to guide trail rides into the canyon. Saddle up for as little as 30 minutes or for a few hours to ride the 4.5-mile trail that travels past the canyon’s famed lighthouse formation. Families are welcome but age minimums do apply.

Whether you arrive on horseback or in a four-wheel SUV, sleeping under the stars is available at Palo Duro. Equestrian campsites rent for as little as $12 a night. Or camp at sites that have tables and fire rings or modern sites with electric hookups and showers.

Three rustic Cow Camp Cabins located on the canyon’s rim and four smaller, no-frills CCC cabins are also available for rent on a first-come basis.

From Amarillo, take Interstate 27 south to state Highway 217 and go east about eight miles to the entrance of Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

Chowing down

For more information, contact:

• Amarillo Convention and Visitors Council, (800) 692-1338, or click on;

• Big Texan Steak Ranch, (806) 372-7000,;

• River Breaks Ranch, (806) 374-0357,;

• Elkin Ranch Cowboy Morning Breakfast, (806) 488-2100, or click on;

• Palo Duro Canyon State Park, (806) 488-2227, or visit online at

To visit the Texas Panhandle, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Click here for a list of offices.
Satisfy your appetite for food and adventure at Elkins Ranch Cowboy Morning (11301 E. State Highway 217 at the entrance to Palo Duro Canyon State Park) or the River Breaks Ranch (on Soncy Road off Interstate 40) where Texas-style breakfasts and suppers are rustled up by reservation only.

At River Breaks, arrive early and ride the covered wagons to the camp site where you’ll find River Breaks’ “cookie” cooking from an authentic chuck wagon, dishing up tin plates full of soda biscuits, eggs, sausage and skillet gravy. While savoring the breakfast, visitors can watch ranch hands demonstrate cattle roping and other ranch tasks. A little friendly horse racing follows breakfast before heading back to the wagons.

“At River Breaks we give our folks a chance to get within arm’s reach of the ranch experience,” says fourth-generation cowboy Curt Cornett, whose family opened River Breaks as a guest ranch for breakfast, dinner and special events four years ago. “We like to consider it a total interactive ranch experience.”

A cow camp near the canyon’s rim is the theme for a cowboy morning, Elkins Ranch style. Travel aboard “motorized herds” (Jeeps painted like cows) for a scenic tour before pulling into cow camp where hot coffee awaits. Fill up on breakfast vittles that include pan-fried potatoes, eggs and cinnamon rolls. Old time Western music, cowboy yarns and poetry complete the menu.

Texas is cattle country so it’s no surprise steaks are the main culinary attraction. And nowhere is steak more revered than at the Big Texan Steak Ranch (7701 I-40 East), home of the free 72-ounce steak dinner. Yep, it’s free–providing you can eat the entire steak and the trimmings in an hour. However, the Big Texan has provided for the petit appetite offering smaller steaks weighing in at six ounces and up.

Capturing the culture

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (2503 Fourth Ave. in Canyon), located at West Texas A&M University, has been preserving west Texas history and culture since 1933. Featuring special exhibits throughout the year, the museum houses one of the largest collections of western artifacts and southwest art in the country.

Currently on display through Aug. 19 is “JA: The Paloduro Ranch” celebrating the 130th anniversary of the JA Ranch. Through artifacts and photos, the JA’s vivid past is highlighted from the arrival of Charles Goodnight in 1876 to his partnership with Englishman John Adair to present-day ranch operations.

Homage to the horse is the mission at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum in Amarillo (1600 Quarter Horse Drive). Operated by the American Quarter Horse Association and recently renovated, the museum illustrates the history and preserves artifacts of America’s favorite horse while honoring those who contributed to the breed’s development.

A short drive from the AQHA Museum is the Kwahadi Kiva Indian Museum (9151 E. Interstate 40), home of the renowned Kwahadi Dancers. An outgrowth of the local Boy Scout council, the dancers perform nearly every weekend during the summer season at the Kiva performing center.

Cowboys fascinate children, as well as the child within us. Experience the real thing in west Texas.

Suzanne Corbett is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

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