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An Amarillo Six-Shooter – Activities on the Texas Plains
By Tom Adkinson

AMARILLO, Texas – Big cars, big steaks, a big canyon . . . everything seems to be super-sized in this attraction-packed West Texas city. Here’s a selection of six. Let’s call them the Amarillo Six-Shooter.

texas plains
Any graffiti you apply to a Cadillac Ranch vehicle soon will be covered by other “artists.” Image by Tom Adkinson.

1. Cadillac RanchOne of the oddest art installations in the world rises in a flat field between exits 60 and 62 on I-40. It’s Cadillac Ranch, 10 vintage Cadillac sedans buried nose down in the Texas dirt, all in a straight line facing west. Three San Francisco artists funded by an Amarillo millionaire created this curiosity in 1974. The oldest car is a 1949, and the youngest is a 1963. The artists said they were a tribute to the evolution of Cadillac tail fins.

Sanctioned graffiti became common long ago, so travelers from around the world pull off the highway, walk through an open gate and amble toward the cars – plotting exactly what to do with the spray paint they bought at an Amarillo hardware store. Hint: Don’t expect your graffiti to last long. Someone from London, Seattle or Tokyo will obliterate it soon enough.

big texan steak
Big Texan cook proudly shows off a tomahawk steak at the famous roadside steakhouse; image by Tom Adkinson.

2. Big Texan Steak Ranch and Brewery – Perhaps as well known as Cadillac Ranch, at least to Americans, is the Big Texan and its free steaks. Free steaks? Actually, it’s a challenge. Consume a 72-ounce steak (that’s 4.5 pounds), a shrimp cocktail, a salad and a dinner roll in one hour, and then it’s free. Fail, and you pay up. Today, the price of failure is $72 – but you do get to take home the leftovers. More than 100,000 people have tried, but few succeed, and women are more successful than men.

Gimmicks aside, the Big Texan is a bustling roadside steakhouse that feeds and entertains about 3,000 people a day. Patrons, who choose from numerous cuts of beef, often get to watch someone accept the 72-ounce challenge. Special tables are elevated right in front of the grill, and showtime includes an announcer and a countdown clock.

palo duro canyon
Palo Duro Canyon stretches out of sight behind a trail hand from Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West; image by Tom Adkinson.
red landscape texas
Artist Georgia O’Keefe created this image of West Texas from her time in the region. The work is “Red Landscape”; image by Tom Adkinson.

3. Palo Duro Canyon – The only canyon bigger than Palo Duro is the Grand Canyon. It’s quite the surprise in the flat West Texas plains – 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and 800 feet deep. Palo Duro Canyon State Park covers a hefty 28,000 acres, but that’s only 5 percent of the whole canyon. A twisting eight-mile-long road built during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps takes you to the floor of the canyon and the summertime home of an outdoor drama called “TEXAS.”

Park lodging is rustic (six campgrounds and seven rock cabins), while luxurious lodging is at the rim at Doves Rest Cabins, also the site of some excellent chuck wagon meals. The real treat here is taking a trail ride with Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West at Los Cedros Ranch, a 3,000-acre cattle ranch. The rides take you right to the rim of the canyon to view scenes that have inspired generations of artists.

4. Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum – This is the largest history museum in Texas, and it focuses on the human and natural history of the region. Its many galleries highlight everything from ranching and the oil industry to transportation, Native Americans and pioneer living.

Its art collection is extensive and includes works by Georgia O’Keefe, who once lived here. Of note is her painting called “Red Landscape,” which has been translated into an interactive sculptural relief. As sight-impaired guests touch it, sensors detect their hands, and recordings explain aspects of the painting in English and Spanish.

5. American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum – You don’t have to be a horse person to appreciate the story of the quarter horse, a breed the museum calls “the short, stocky, good-natured horses” that Texas ranchers and cattlemen preferred through history. The orientation film explains the breed’s popularity and it many roles on ranches, racetracks and show arenas.

wildcat bluff nature center
Rays of golden morning sun illuminate a line of hikers on a trail at the Wildcat Bluff Nature Center; image by Tom Adkinson.

6. Wildcat Bluff Nature Center – Every good city needs to stay close to nature, and the Wildcat Bluff Nature Center is Amarillo’s proof. The city’s skyline is visible from this 640-acre tract of high plains prairie. Five miles of trails wind through meadows and mesas and offer a great view of Wildcat Bluff itself. The plains may be flat, but they’re definitely not flat as a pancake. The 2,000-foot-long handicapped-accessible Libb’s Trail is available if you’re not inclined to wander in the wilderness – in a manner of speaking. The trails are open every day of the year.

Trip-planning resources:

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published March 1, 2019

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