Getting there: From the park entrance, drive down Park Road 5 into the canyon. Drive past the amphitheater and trading post. After the second low water crossing, look for parking at the trailhead on the right.
The Hike: On our Palo Duro trip the weather was unseasonably warm on the first day, so we decided to hike trails that would provide a bit of shade later in the day. While the Juniper Trail - Cliffside doesn't provide much in the way of shade, it did connect to the Riverside Trails that we were to tackle afterwards.
The trail begins at the waypoint "Trailhead". This location is also the trailhead for the popular Lighthouse Trail. On the topo map the actual trail is shown with a red line. Blue lines represent side trails or other trails that connect to Juniper Trail - Cliffside. The trail heads south and generally follows Park Road 5. It is often even in view. This turned out to not be as big a deal as I first feared since there wasn't really much traffic on the road at all. At the height of holiday season this may detract some from the experience. Even so, we saw more people along the road, stopping to take in a view than we saw on the trail itself.
Coppertone contemplates the trail.
The trail surface is hard packed dirt and some rock. The dirt is red and comes from the red claystone found throughout the the canyon. The rock erodes easily and when not compacted it creates pockets of sand which occur along this and other Palo Duro trails. The sandy soil often sports tracks of the animals that have passed by here recently, so keep an eye open for them. Common tracks are those of Deer, Coyotes, Road Runners and Raccoons.
A view of the road and the canyon from the trail. Though close to the road many times, there was not much traffic to disturb the peace.
Our first side trail led to the waypoint "Canyon". This unofficial trail started out looking official and petered out a bit, but continued to march westward, so we followed it. This detour often followed close to the rim of a small canyon. The crumbling rock providing unsecure footing and is not recommended for beginners. Eventually the trail did indeed end in thick brush and we turned back.
Along the trail we encountered one of the reasons why the trails at Palo Duro are well maintained. Volunteers were cutting back vegetation to keep the trail clear and we voiced our thanks as we passed them by. It's tiring, but rewarding work, but a little extra encouragement never hurts.
A view of the trail as it traverses undulating terrain. The Fortress Cliff mesa can be seen in the distance to the right.
The second side trail led to the waypoint "Cave". Actually the formation here is probably not
technically a cave, at least not yet. An overhang has developed in the claystone cliff that looks like a large cave opening from afar. The sight is too tempting for visitors and everyone seems to want to go see it. We scrambled up the slope to get to the opening and were soon followed by a large group of children that enjoyed climbing all over the rocks. The rock here is soft and sometimes brittle. When using handholds the rock may break off and almost certainly will coat your hand. It's easy to see why this canyon has developed so easily. The shade of the cave was refreshing given the direct sunlight we'd been exposed to up to this point.
The cave-like overhang along the trail was popular with those sightseeing by car. Some riders on horses also rode by.
At the cave we encountered a couple of park visitors on horses. The Riverside Trails close to the river do not allow horses, but they are allowed on this and the Lighthouse Trail.
Despite what the official park map says, we could not determine whether the trail actually crosses the river and heads to the horse stables farther south. It looked like the only way to get there was to continue for a distance on the main park road. So the end of the Juniper Trail - Cliffside that we mapped occurs at the waypoint "Turnaround". If you wanted to stick to this trail only, then that is what you should do. We actually combined this trail with the Riverside Trails that continue on with the blue tracks on the topo map.
The park map also states that the trail is a two mile round trip, but we calculated this to be more like 2.5 miles one way or five for a complete out and back. This is quite a difference and should be considered before heading out.