Ozona is the only community in Crockett County which is the size of Delaware. Yep, the only one! It’s about an hour southwest of San Angelo, 398 miles from Houston and 347 miles from El Paso. Which makes it a pretty good jumping-off point for a lot of directions.
But before you zoom through, consider stopping for some of the unique things that Ozona has to offer. We scheduled an extra night on our trip to Big Bend to give us time to wander around and explore . . .and to give the ol’ accelerator-foot a break.
If you follow my blog or instagram account, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m a sucker for historic courthouse buildings. I was happy to finally see this one in person.
The 1902 Second Empire courthouse of Crockett County – named after the legendary Davy Crockett – is the centerpiece of town. Designed by Oscar Ruffini, one of a pair of proliferate brother architects who kept busy populating Texas with their creations. Oscar also designed the Sutton County Courthouse, Tom Green County Courthouse and Ozona High School, and his brother Frederick Ernst designed the Concho County Courthouse, Bastrop County Courthouse, former Blanco County Courthouse (now restored) and the Millet Opera House in Austin.
The courthouse was made from stone quarried on nearby property owned by the Crouch and Meyer families, and cost a whopping $30,000. In 1909 an arc light was added to the steeple to signal the sheriff (the Batman beacon comes to mind!) and guide travelers to town.
It was far more than a courthouse for Ozona and surrounding communities though, and served as a social center for cowboy dances, roundup celebrations, Christmas trees and box suppers (which reminds me of a particular scene from the musical Oklahoma!).
If the bull’s eye or “ox eye” circular moldings the mansard roof look like they’re missing something…they are! They were originally intended as a place for clock faces that were never installed. At one point in the past it bothered the locals enough to paint clocks in the features. When the courthouse was recently restored it was decided to leave them as is.
A memorial statue of Davy Crockett stands nearby on the square. Placed on its base in 1938, it was carved from two slabs of granite weighing nearly 20 tons (well, after all – he WAS a heavyweight of Texas history!), and is inscribed with Crockett’s motto, “Be sure you are right, then go ahead.” Still seems like sound advice.
“The Tie that Binds” is an emotional bronze stands at the center of the square just a few strides away from Davy to remind visitors of the perseverance of their pioneer ancestors. At life-and-a-quarter size, it makes quite an impression close up!
Just across the street is the former Hotel Ozona (not to be confused with the former Ozona Hotel . . . they could have used a bit more imagination, evidently). The three-story mission style inn was built in 1927 to attract tourists along the Old Spanish Trail. See more of my photos of this abandoned beauty and find out more about the OST here.
I really appreciate visitors centers that are more than a room filled with pamphlets, and the Ozona Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center (505 15th Street) is definitely worth a stop (even if it’s just to see this cocky granite Texas sporting a Stetson). The building is bright and welcoming, and the staff are versed in numerous local and area attractions that might peak your interest.
Across the parking lot is the Crockett County Interpretive Trail (free to visit) showcasing native plants that can be found within 100 miles of Ozona. The short trail (like a small park) has over 200 plants representing over 75 species, each identified by an inscribed stone. We were lucky to stop by in spring when several of the plants were showing off their blooms, but the display would be fascinating year round. Botanists and gardening fans will get a kick out of this detailed brochure of the exhibit.
Off-roaders will definitely want to venture out to the Escondido Draw Recreational Area, a 3,500 acre, 110 mile trail for all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and 4-wheel drives.
After driving all day and seeing a bit of town, we were ready to sit down for a good meal, the The Hitching Post Steakhouse (1301 Old Highway 290) came highly recommended. Actually, on some days of the week like we arrived on it’s pretty much the only game in town, but that’s just fine.
We were a bit confused when we pulled into the parking lot filled with at least two dozen fire trucks and rescue vehicles from all over Texas until we realized there was a firemen’s convention in town. But we definitely took that as a good sign, because let’s be honest – firemen know their food!
The western theme, come-as-you-are restaurant probably hasn’t been redecorated much in the last few decades, which the faded photos of Old West Outlaws and cowhide on the wall, heavy wooden club chairs and indoor/outdoor carpeting will attest to – but you won’t care a bit once your food arrives. If you’re looking for good food at reasonable prices, The Hitching Post fits the bill.
A smoking room on one side has pool tables and the bar, and the other side of the building has non-smoking seating. An outdoor patio is also a good option for dining on fair weather days.
Thirsty for something stronger than tea? Be forewarned that the restaurant charges a $5 club fee to “join” to order alcohol.
Since we hadn’t worked up big appetites we decided to split a couple of appetizers, and settled on marinated cube steaks and 1/2 order of fried mushrooms. The portions were generous and deliciously seasoned. Thank heaven the waitress suggested we choose a half order of mushrooms, since a full order would have fed half the firemen in the room.
I’ll definitely go back to try the chicken fried steak next time I’m in town. The fact that they’re open until 11 p.m. makes it easy if one of your day trips from Ozona runs a bit longer than expected.
If you have a bit more time during your visit to Ozona, you might want to explore:
Crockett County Museum
Fort Lancaster State Historic Site in Sheffield
Caverns of Sonora (34 miles)
Accommodations: We enjoyed our stay at the Holiday Inn Express Hotels & Suites. The staff was friendly and the rooms were lovely and clean. Just be aware that if you’re booking because you find a great rate, there might be unexpected charged added at checkout. Our $111 rate (which was one of the selling points that helped us decide to make Ozona a stop)— ended up costing about $165 which is a heck of a difference and more expensive than any of the other stays on our 10-day trip!
I thought that when people referred to Palo Duro as the “Grand Canyon of Texas” they were probably overstating things . . . until I saw it for myself.
The second largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 820 feet deep. It’s the second largest park in the state park system – 28,000 acres (over 45 square miles) with 28 miles of hiking, biking and horse trails. That’s a lot of territory!
People have inhabited the canyon for about 12,000 years, and its history includes exciting chapters like Comanches and the Goodnight Trail. But This time around our family just focused on the absolute beauty of nature.
Texas bought the land for the park in 1933. Civilian Conservation Corps workers spent five years creating the park, a cabin for their home base, the winding road to the canyon floor, the CCC Trail, and the El Coronado Lodge (now the Visitor Center). The craftsmen used local stone and wood for building materials and furniture, and forged decorative metal ornaments.
After our morning ride along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon (more about that in my last post) we headed to the state park, ready to see more of the stunning scenery. Initially, we intended to swing in for a short visit since we knew the clothes we were wearing (long sleeved shirts, jeans and boots) were perfect for riding, but not for hiking. Once there though, the views lured us further and further into the canyon, anxious to see what was next.
Just a couple of miles inside the entrance, we made our first stop at the visitor’s center (the original the El Coronado Lodge) that was built by the CCC, so it was fitting that exhibits included some fascinating relics of the Corps’ days in the canyon. There’s also a small gift shop, though I’ll mention a more “souvenir-y” option later in this post.
The vistas from the vantage point outside of the lodge were so enchanting, we knew we had to go at least a bit further into the park.
We took Park Road 5 which winds down to the canyon floor, circles clockwise in a 16 mile loop and slowly climbs back up to the rim.
The first, short trail we ventured out on was relatively easy, but it was quickly apparent that at 11:00 a.m. it was already too hot (in addition to inappropriate clothing) for us to take on any of the longer trails. We were still fairly close to the rim, and the canyon floor would be about twenty degrees hotter!
The view from even the least challenging trails are more than worth the effort and heat!
Each one we investigated offered increasingly impressive scenery.
Some of the trails were quite rocky and others were red dirt that I would have expected more in Oklahoma.
Four geologic layers are exposed on the canyon walls, that seem to change color depending on the time of day and season of year – just one of the reasons Palo Duro draws so many amateur and professional photographers.
Once I heard the erosion features referred to as “Mexican skirts” it was hard to get that image out of my mind. It’s really appropriate, don’t you think?
The park provides enough diversity in its habitats to be a comfortable home to quite a variety of wildlife, in addition to part of the state herd of longhorns. Coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed and mule deer, and many species of snakes and lizards. We saw several roadrunners darting across the terrain, which reminded me of living in El Paso when I was little – and the birds seemed to be everywhere.
You might even spot some wild turkeys. Did you know that a group of turkeys is called a “rafter?” There’s your trivia for the day!
Two threatened species also live in the canyon: the Palo Duro mouse (which only lives in three Texas counties) and the Texas horned lizard (the State Reptile of Texas).
Along our driving route we passed several picnic and camping areas. When I return for my next visit (and make no mistake about it…there WILL be a next visit!) I’d love to stay in one of the cabins on site. Imagine waking up to these views.
One of the most pleasant surprises we encountered was fields or wildflowers, as well as individual flooring plants that had stubbornly pushed their way up through the dry dirt. In central and south Texas many wildflowers were already past season in June.
Indian blanket, American basket-flower (shown in photo), sunflower, paperflower, blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats grama, buffalograss, sand sage, yucca and prickly pear cactus decorated the canyon floor and made the area appear to be more of a place for living creatures than desolate and empty.
Even though we traveled the majority of the distance by car, we drank a LOT of water. Staying hydrated in the canyon (which can reach 130 degrees in summer) is non-negotiable!
But if you think this vast canyon, however arid, couldn’t possibly be romantic I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Sharing this grandeur (not a word I use lightly) with the ones you love is a memorable experience.
We pulled over one last time at the base of the canyon to check out the trailhead for the famous Lighthouse formation.
The Lighthouse Trail is the most well-known trail in Palo Duro Canyon. It’s considered a moderate hike ( 2.72 miles each way) but having arrived during the heat of the day without the proper shoes, we vowed to return at another time to venture off to see unusual 310 foot tall formation. I walked just around the initial bend of the trail to take a photo (though far away) of the lighthouse, which looked small in the distance.
The park has posted multiple warnings about the danger of heat and dehydration at the head of the trail, and even staffed a tent with a ranger to provide information and advice to people before they set out. Although I certainly didn’t envy her, it was impressive how seriously they took visitors’ safety.
By that time we had worked up an appetite and exhausted our water supply, so we headed to the Palo Duro Trading Post on the rim for a late lunch. They don’t serve anything fancy, but you know those times you’re so hungry everything taste like the BEST (fill in the food blank) ever? Yep, it was one of those days. The staff was friendly, service fast and tables clean. Hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs seemed like the find of the day. And the ice cream? C’mon…what do YOU think?
The Trading Post also offered a fun variety of souvenirs from T-shirts to mugs to jewelry, all very reasonably priced.
Happy with our visit and satisfied appetites, we left the park to go back to the hotel to take off those boots and give our feet a rest before heading out to see more of Amarillo.
If you only have time to visit one place in the Texas Panhandle (and that would be a shame), Palo Duro Canyon State Park should be that place.
When you go, remember to:
Bring and drink water
Wear sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing
Have your camera ready
Bring and drink water
Pick up a map before you head out
Wear comfortable, supportive shoes
And…you guessed it…bring and drink plenty of water!
Do you prefer to hike, bike or drive through sites like this beautiful state park? I’m interested to know!