It’s no surprise that the iconic Lighthouse trail is the most popular hike in Palo Duro Canyon, and it absolutely deserves its popularity!
The Lighthouse, which stretches roughly 310 feet into the air and overlooks the seemingly endless Palo Duro Canyon, is the most famous rock formation in the state park, adorning everything from brochures to souvenir magnets.
Considering a hike to the Lighthouse during your trip to Palo Duro Canyon?
Here’s what to expect on the trail–and a few tips to keep in mind before you go.
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What’s It Like to Hike to the Lighthouse?
Lots of fun, but very hot during most of the year!
If you enjoy desert landscapes, you’ll love this trail: the views of the desert and the canyon are gorgeous, you get to admire the Lighthouse from afar before approaching it, and you’ll no doubt spot a few lizards and plenty of cacti along the way.
You’ll also see hoodoos and other beautiful rock formations as you make your way to the Lighthouse.
There are benches throughout the trail to rest at, however, there is very little shade to speak of. Sun protection and bringing plenty of water are both extremely important when hiking the Lighthouse trail.
Essential Details for Visiting the Lighthouse
The Lighthouse trail in Palo Duro Canyon is a 5.7 mile trek roundtrip, and is set up as an out-and-back trail.
You can also combine the Lighthouse trail with other trails in Palo Duro Canyon, including the Givens, Spicer, and Lowry Trail, to create a longer and/or more difficult hike.
Palo Duro Canyon’s trail map (you check the map out here) ranks the trail as moderate, but depending on your fitness level and hiking experience, I’d personally be tempted to say that the trail is categorized by fairly easy sections followed by a difficult (but fairly brief) ascent to the Lighthouse at the end of the trail.
With the exception of the final ascent, where hiking on foot is the only logical option, bikers and equestrians are also welcome on the Lighthouse trail.
How Long Does it Take to Hike the Lighthouse Trail?
The trail is estimated to take roughly 2 hours to complete, however, we recommend setting aside extra time to enjoy the impressive rock formations and beautiful views of the canyon once you reach the Lighthouse.
Getting to the Lighthouse Trailhead
The Lighthouse trailhead has its own small parking lot that is located along the Palo Duro Canyon loop road, on the west side of the park. It is well-marked and fairly easy to spot.
You’ll pass both the trailhead for the Givens, Spicer, and Lowry trail and a set of restrooms before reaching the Lighthouse trailhead.
What to Bring on the Lighthouse Trail
Within Palo Duro Canyon, the official recommendation is to carry one quart of water per person, per mile. However, at the Lighthouse, there’s an additional sign that suggests carrying a gallon of water per person, per mile.
Bottom line: bring more than you think you’ll need.
While the Lighthouse trail is short enough that you don’t necessarily need to eat a meal along the way, it’s incredibly satisfying to eat a snack while admiring the Lighthouse at the peak of the trail–and there’s no doubt that you’ll be hungry once you get there!
Ideally, bring a bottle of sunscreen with you in order to reapply during the hike.
Don’t leave sun protection to sunscreen alone: you should absolutely have a hat with you when hiking the Lighthouse trail.
Very Comfortable Shoes
I wore my beloved Keen Whisper Sandals to hike the Lighthouse trail, and while I was generally happy with the choice, I did have to stop to clear rocks out of them a few times. Closed-toed hiking shoes would probably be a better choice, but of course, the trade-off would be that your feet won’t stay as cool.
Biting horse flies are a nuisance when hiking to the Lighthouse–you’ll definitely want to apply some bug spray to ward them off!
We don’t typically use walking sticks when hiking, but if you’re used to hiking with one, bring it along–you’ll be glad you have it during the final ascent.
Tips for Visiting Palo Duro Canyon’s Lighthouse Trail
Don’t underestimate the heat.
Estimates vary, but it’s a good rule of thumb to plan on the canyon floor being about 10 degrees warmer than the rim.
Add in lots of sun exposure and a harsh, unforgiving desert environment, and you’re in for a bit of trouble if you don’t adequately prepare for the heat when hiking the Lighthouse trail.
… or the lack of shade.
The vast majority of the Lighthouse trail in Palo Duro Canyon is in direct sun, and there are very few shady places to speak of. Come prepared with sun protection!
Get an early start to avoid the crowds.
As the most popular trail in Palo Duro Canyon, the Lighthouse trail can get very busy–but you’ll avoid the worst of the crowds by hiking in the morning.
If possible, you may also want to consider hiking on a weekday, as the park is generally more crowded on the weekends.
The difficulty of the Lighthouse trail varies dramatically.
Unlike some trails that maintain a similar difficulty throughout the route or gradually increase in difficulty, the Lighthouse trail is characterized by very easy, flat, sandy sections of trail followed by a near-vertical section as you ascend to the Lighthouse itself.
The ascent isn’t as bad as it looks, and only takes a few minutes, but it can be startling if you’re not sure what to expect!
Don’t rush down–be sure to spend some time at the Lighthouse!
Once you reach the Lighthouse, you won’t want to leave: the views of the rock formations and the canyon itself are incredible, and there are several views and angles to enjoy in the immediate area.
Be sure to account for a break at the top when calculating how long you plan to spend on the Lighthouse trail in Palo Duro Canyon.