Helpful Hints, The Great Outdoors, Travel

Road Tripping from Houston to Colorado with Kids: Palo Duro and Cadillac Ranch

If you’re thinking about a road trip, now’s the time to go for it! In our first blog post in this series, we covered planning a road trip from Houston to Colorado with kids, along with some essential tips that will make the long drive easy. Now, we’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of the Texas portion – from Houston to Canyon, TX – and the rewards that await you once you get there.

It’s almost impossible to make the drive to Colorado in a day. Depending on where you want to end up, two can even be stretching it with kids in tow. Plus, you want to make those days at least a little fun, and the kids need to run around. Those factors considered, we decided that Canyon, TX was the perfect city to rest our heads in, both on the way there and back.

Why Canyon? These reasons sealed the deal for us:

  • It’s a little over 9 hours from Houston without stops – we could start at 8am, and with a few stops, be there before the kids’ bedtime
  • Colorado Springs, our first CO destination, is a little over 7 hours from Canyon, so we had time to get in a good hike in southern Colorado on our way
  • Palo Duro Canyon State Park is a place we’ve always wanted to visit
  • Cadillac Ranch is really close and right on the way out of town towards Colorado
  • There are enough places to grab some food to-go and a couple decent hotels

Getting There

There are lots of ways to get to Canyon from Houston, but the best (and most interesting) route seemed to be through Waco, up through Ft Worth, through Wichita Falls, and then on to Canyon. 45 to 287 is always an option, but save that for the trip back (in reverse, of course) when you don’t care as much about scenery and just want to get home!

We decided we wanted to make one real stop (other than bathroom breaks) on the way up, right around lunchtime. It turns out that there are two fantastic stops within just 10 minutes of each other – you can grab the best kolaches in Texas at the Czech Stop in West, TX, and then you can eat them at the Hill County NB Rest Area just north of Abbott, TX! The rest area is really the most fantastic rest stop we have ever seen. Clean, modern bathrooms, plenty of wide open spaces for running around, and tons of covered picnic areas. There was a nice breeze when we were there in late July, so it didn’t even seem that hot.

We eat a ton of kolaches, and these were WAY at the top of the list! Plus, there were autographed photos of Willie AND the Tiger King above the counter 🙂

Cadillac Ranch

Cadillac Ranch was one of two must-dos for our family. It’s an iconic Texas landmark, it has been on our list to see for years, and it would be really fun for our kids to channel their inner street artist. We bought 3 cans of spray paint before we left at Home Depot to make sure we were prepared.

If you haven’t heard of this landmark before, it’s basically 10 Cadillacs from the 1950s with their noses buried in the dirt in a field, so they are all sitting at a diagonal with the trunks in the air. These cars have been spray painted over and over again through the years, and it’s a tradition to bring your cans and tag them on your way through town. There’s no entry fee – just remember to give your cans to someone on the way out or put them in the trash.

Cadillac Ranch: Go early and bring spray paint!

At first our plan was to go to Palo Duro first thing in the morning and THEN go to Cadillac Ranch on the way out. That would have been a very bad plan for the following reasons:

  1. It’s friggin HOT out there mid-day in the middle of a field in Amarillo
  2. It gets super crowded at Cadillac Ranch starting mid-morning

The best way to pull this off is on the way up from Houston, get your rest in Canyon, wake up, and go straight to Cadillac Ranch first thing. If you get there around 8, nobody’s there yet, and you have your pick of cars to spray paint! You can take a billion photos (there is no better place on earth to get photos of your kids with colorful backgrounds!), you can keep away from others, and it’s still nice outside – even in late July. Just leave before 9:30 to get on the road to CO.

Palo Duro

We had planned to go to Palo Duro on the way up to Colorado, but we messed up and forgot to make reservations in advance by purchasing a day pass. By the time we figured this out, they were all taken for the day we needed to go. We were bummed, but this turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise. Instead, we decided to hit up Palo Duro on the way BACK from Colorado in the evening. This was perfect because:

  • It was hot, but not too hot at all – like 91 degrees at 6pm, and we didn’t have to worry about it getting hotter. It got cooler as we enjoyed the park because the sun was setting!
  • You’ll be on Mountain Time because you were just in CO, so 6pm feels like 7pm and the kids won’t be too exhausted to have a good time
  • The park is open as of August 2020 for day visitors to enter 7am-7pm, but you can stay as long as 10pm!
  • There is almost nobody in the park except a few folks camping after 6pm. We had the place to ourselves!
  • The animals in this type of environment are most active at dusk, so you get to see cool things like armadillos and other wildlife
At Palo Duro Canyon State Park, there is unbelievable beauty everywhere you look. Photos don’t even do it justice.

We asked the park ranger what to do with small kids if we wanted to be there for like 1.5 hours, and she recommended the following:

  • Drive through the park – it takes about 30-40 minutes without stopping to hike
  • Stop at the overlook at the beginning of the drive where you can see the whole canyon – second largest in the country – amazing!
  • Hike the 0.5 mile Pioneer Nature Trail (trail map here – make sure to request one from the ranger upon entry). Even though it’s short, still bring plenty of water! There are lots of little trail offshoots to explore, and it’s easy to see how to get back while still enjoying the desert scenery.
  • Stop at “The Big Cave” (stop 10 on the trail map) and climb around, getting as close as you want if you’re brave!

All in all, the front end and back end of our trip that could have been a monotonous drive to get to the finish line in CO ended up being some of our best memories.

Now, plan the next leg of your trip from southern Colorado up to Colorado Springs, Royal Gorge, Pike’s Peak, and the surrounding area!

5 thoughts on “Road Tripping from Houston to Colorado with Kids: Palo Duro and Cadillac Ranch”

  1. Katie, I am loving your blog! We tent-camped in Palo Duro Canyon 17 years ago with our now 29-year-old granddaughter. Not the best camping experience, but I still love the area.

    Like

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