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SADDLE UP: Amarillo is where old west meets new west in heart of Panhandle region

Leave the hustle and bustle behind and head to West Texas for a memorable getaway at a slower pace

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There are more than 270 sunny days in Amarillo each year. With 19.5 inches (49.5 cm) of precipitation annually, this city located in the heart of the Panhandle Plains in West Texas is as dry as dust.

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Naturally, not long after a couple of sunshine-chasing Canadians arrived in town, the big Texas skies let out an angry growl and unleashed the kind of storm reserved for a few times a year in these parts.

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Call it the curse of the Canucks. Or, maybe from the rain-deprived locals’ standpoint, the Maple Miracle.

Though a severe thunderstorm interrupted our travel plans slightly, wiping out our planned Jeep tour through the second-largest canyon in the U.S., consider it a minor burr in our saddle.

In a way, the rare storm was symbolic. We came here for the classic cowboy culture and historic highway. But as we soon learned, in Amarillo, you just might find what you didn’t know you were looking for. (That includes watching a mesmerizing lightning show from inside a cozy cabin at the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon.)

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With sophisticated boutique hotels, a lively, quirky arts and culture scene and fantastic dining options, the city goes beyond boots and a route.

It’s true, roughly one-quarter of the country’s beef is produced in the Texas Panhandle. And, yes, Amarillo is the largest city on the 286-km (178-mile) portion of Route 66 that goes from Oklahoma to Texas and into New Mexico.

“When somebody pictures Texas in their head, it’s West Texas,” Kashion Smith, Amarillo Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director, said. “It’s right here.”

ZZ Top performs the Amarillo Civic Center. SARA SHANTZ GIF
ZZ Top performs the Amarillo Civic Center. SARA SHANTZ GIF

So, too, are all the modern touches. They say Amarillo is where old west and new west meet and we’ll tip our Stetson to that sentiment. During our stay, we toured an historic saddle shop, rocked out to Texas’ own ZZ Top at an outstanding concert venue, checked out half-buried Cadillacs, witnessed ambitious eaters tackle a 72-ounce steak challenge, hiked in the Palo Duro Canyon, tried mountain oysters (hint, they’re not seafood), joined a glass-blowing workshop, and tucked into some seriously refined accommodations in between it all.

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Amarillo is among the windiest cities in America, and we believe it. On that note, we’ll admit to being blown away by everything the city had to offer.

With an international airport (named for astronaut and Amarillo native Rick Husband), Amarillo is accessible from Toronto via connecting flights from surrounding airports including Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. We flew in from Houston but a great American road trip through the Texas Panhandle would also be logical.

If you’re fixin’ to travel to the Lone Star State, y’all might find that sought-after classic West Texas vibe in Amarillo. Rain or shine.

Visitors to Cadillac Ranch can bring their own spray paint and leave a message for the next visitors. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
Visitors to Cadillac Ranch can bring their own spray paint and leave a message for the next visitors. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

WEIRD, WEIRD WEST

Finding Cadillac Ranch — Amarillo’s world-famous art installation featuring a row of 10 half-buried Cadillacs – isn’t difficult. This is the High Plains region. Everything is flat.

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Finding an open area to spray-paint a message on one of the colourful cars? That’s pert near impossible. The Cadillacs’ colours are always changing and it says here the daily evolution of this quirky art installation bankrolled by Amarillo artist and philanthropist Stanley Marsh 3 is what makes it so interesting. Unlike art that’s confined to a museum or surrounded by security checkpoints, visitors to Cadillac Ranch are free to step right up and make it their own.

We opted to paint our names on the car we spotted that had the word ‘Canada’ on it. Only makes sense, eh?

These vehicles have been buried nose-down in a field at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Giza, piquing curiosities since 1974. And yes, Bruce Springsteen’s song of the same name got its inspiration here.

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Ozymandias on the Plains. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
Ozymandias on the Plains. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

Lesser-known but equally quirky art can be found off nearby I-27. The Ozymandias on the Plains sculpture – two gigantic legs in the middle of a field — is the shattered likeness of an Egyptian king. Not exactly something you’d expect to find in ranching country, but there it is.

The work was built by Amarillo’s Lightnin’ McDuff, who aside from being an artist has the coolest name on the planet.

The bus used in the Robin Williams movie RV is part of the collection at Jack Sisemore’s RV Museum in Amarillo. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
The bus used in the Robin Williams movie RV is part of the collection at Jack Sisemore’s RV Museum in Amarillo. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

Round out your visit to all things unconventional with a visit to the Jack Sisemore RV Museum, just a few minutes from the big legs in the field. We’ll give this museum five trailer hitches out of a possible five trailer hitches – it’s simply that fantastic. The museum is home to a collection of unique RVS, including the world’s oldest Airstream (1935 Torpedo), the 1948 Flxible that was used in the Robin Williams movie RV, and one of the first tent trailers ever built, the 1937 Kozy Kamp.

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“It just became a phenomenon without any advertising,” said Jack’s son, Trent Sisemore, noting visitors have come from around the world.

Trent himself might give the Dos Equis beer guy a good run as the Most Interesting Man in the world. Aside from helping operate the RV museum, he is the former mayor of Amarillo, a former city commissioner, a corporate pilot who has flown a fighter jet, has his third-degree black belt, has hung out with Chuck Norris, George W. Bush and Nolan Ryan, and was a worship pastor for 26 years.

“None of this really matters, it’s all junk,” he said of the collection of RVs and other items of interest. “It’s about the people you meet. The people are wonderful.”

There is no admission charge, and the museum is open to the public Thursday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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The Simulated Universe Synchronicity is a newly opened artificial intelligence-led universe of visual and auditory sensation. SARA SHANTZ PHOTO
The Simulated Universe Synchronicity is a newly opened artificial intelligence-led universe of visual and auditory sensation. SARA SHANTZ PHOTO

For a modernized take on the obscure, The Simulated Universe Synchronicity is a newly opened artificial intelligence-led universe of visual and auditory sensation. It’s part installation, gallery and experience. Consider it the indie film version of the popular Meow Wolf group that has delivered popular immersive art experiences in Sante Fe, Las Vegas and Denver.

While not as ‘out there,’ a glass-blowing workshop at Blind Bird Designs is as educational as it is fun. Husband-and-wife owner-operators Sara and Clay Spaulding walk participants through an immersive process of creating their own one-of-a-kind glass pieces.

Our kicks on Route 66. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
Our kicks on Route 66. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

GET YOUR KICKS AND ROUTE 66

Fixin’ for vintage West Texas? Drop in at Beck Cowboy Boots to peruse the custom shop with roots to the early 1900s or pop by the family-owned and operated Oliver Saddle Shop which opened in that same era and has been supplying American cowgirls and cowboys with saddles and leather goods for four generations.

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“Each piece is a creative piece,” Zeb Oliver said while showing us how they build their saddles. The saddles retail for anywhere from $5,000 to more than $16,000 and are purchased primarily by working ranchers.

Once properly outfitted, journey over to the city’s Historic Route 66 District, located along what was also known as the Will Rogers Highway, the Main Street of America, and the Mother Road. Route 66 stretches some 3,939 km (2,448 miles) from Chicago, Ill., to Santa Monica, Calif. Amarillo’s Route 66 District is home to more than 1.6 km (one mile) of galleries, antique shops and restaurants. We enjoyed lunch at the city’s oldest restaurant, known for its epic burgers. Established in 1946, the GoldenLight Café and Cantina might be the oldest restaurant continuously operating in the same location anywhere on the route.

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The Texas Route 66 Festival runs for 10 days beginning the first week of June with a grand finale festival in Amarillo. Route 66 turns 100 years old in 2026.

The Palo Duro Canyon is the second-largest canyon in the U.S. SARA SHANTZ PHOTO
The Palo Duro Canyon is the second-largest canyon in the U.S. SARA SHANTZ PHOTO

GORGE-OUS VIEWS

Our local guide, Barry Nusz, was equipped with a portable weather radar system in his vehicle and told us a storm was on its way.

He, and the radar, were not wrong.

Not long after our informative visit to Palo Duro Canyon State Park alongside Barry and his wife, Aimee, the thunder, lightning and unrelenting rainfall arrived.

Before the storm hit, we were able to take in some of the mesas, caves, hoodoos, mesquite colours and various rock formations while learning about the human habitation of the canyon that dates back some 15,000 years and included Apache and Comanche tribes.

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The canyon was the site of the Battle of Palo Duro in 1874 and was home to the legendary rancher and Texas Ranger Charles Goodnight.

Palo Duro has a depth of about 270 metres, and is 190-km long and 32-km wide, the second largest in the U.S. behind the Grand Canyon, which is about twice its size.

Palo Duro Creek Ranch Jeep Tours operator Case Barfield gets in on a photo. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
Palo Duro Creek Ranch Jeep Tours operator Case Barfield gets in on a photo. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

While our Spirit of Palo Duro Jeep Tour at Palo Duro Creek Ranch was cancelled due to rain, tour operator Case Barfield was gracious enough to show us a few amazing lookout areas around the rim of the canyon.

“Two things you don’t ask a cowboy: How many acres do you have, and how many cows do you have,” said Barfield, a ranchman who operates his tours just north of the Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

Barfield estimates Palo Duro Creek Ranch, which owns a collection of Humvees, does about 1,200 Jeep tours each year.

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“I try to take the pulse of clients to know what adventure level to give them,” he said, adding his end goal is always to make the experience a fun one.

The nearby Sad Monkey Mercantile serves great coffee to take on the way to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the largest history museum in the state.

The Big Texan in Amarillo is a uniquely West Texas dining experience. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
The Big Texan in Amarillo is a uniquely West Texas dining experience. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

EAT, SLEEP, REPEAT

Anyone looking to eat nine meals in one would certainly be smiling at the Big Texan, Amarillo’s legendary steak stop. This icon along Route 66 is said to be a pioneer when it comes to the great American pastime of eating a lot of food for a little bit of fame. Everything is indeed bigger in Texas, as evidenced by the World Famous 72-ounce Steak Challenge. After filling out a series of waivers, competitors have 60 minutes to demolish 4.5 pounds of Grade-A prime American beef along with a salad, baked potato, shrimp cocktail and a roll with butter. Win and the meal is on the house. Lose? Pay $72 and feel awful on top of the steep price.

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We ate smaller steaks from afar as we watched Seth from Indiana gift himself a serious case of meat sweats for his 36th birthday. He ultimately couldn’t seal the deal, but we suppose he had fun trying, maybe, sorta.

The Big Texan in Amarillo is a uniquely West Texas dining experience, as 36-year-old Seth from Indian will attest. He tried the 72-oz steak challenge and didn’t quite finish his meal. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
The Big Texan in Amarillo is a uniquely West Texas dining experience, as 36-year-old Seth from Indian will attest. He tried the 72-oz steak challenge and didn’t quite finish his meal. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

While the steak challenge won’t be for everyone, the Big Texan is a requisite visit when in Amarillo.

For authentic Mexican and memorable house margaritas, check out El Braceros. Tyler’s is the place to go for world-famous Texas BBQ while Creek House Honey Farm in nearby Canyon is the perfect little lunch spot, offering handcrafted mead and honey-based dishes. Amarillo’s Palace Coffee Co. was named America’s best coffeehouse at CoffeeFest, while Girasol Café & Bakery won the award for World’s Best Granola, just now, according to us, right here in this publication. Seriously. We can’t stop thinking about that granola.

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The Barfield hotel lobby in Amarillo. SARA SHANTZ PHOTO
The Barfield hotel lobby in Amarillo. SARA SHANTZ PHOTO

In Amarillo, we stayed at The Barfield, a boutique downtown hotel that’s central to all the attractions and a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. The Barfield oozes West Texas luxury, incorporating leather and cowhide touches in each room. The historic building was built by philanthropist and prohibitionist Melissa Dora Oliver Eakle – known as “The Duchess” – in 1927. It reopened in 2021 as the hotel after sitting vacant for several decades. Tip: There’s also a speakeasy on site.

Out at Palo Duro Canyon, we were fully immersed in the natural wonder in our cliffside cabin at the Doves Rest Cabins. The cabins are located minutes from the state park and each offers views overlooking the massive canyon. We stayed in the Goodnight Trail stone cabin, equipped with a fully outfitted kitchen, laundry facilities, a hot tub, an indoor fireplace and two giant smart TVs. Not exactly roughing it.

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The Goodnight Trail cabin at Doves Rest Cabins, on the edge of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
The Goodnight Trail cabin at Doves Rest Cabins, on the edge of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

For more information on Amarillo, go to visitamarillo.com.

For more information on Texas, visit traveltexas.com.

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ALL ABOUT AMARILLO

– The Amarillo metropolitan area has a population of 268,691, according to the 2020 Census.
– In 1893, Amarillo’s population was listed as “between 500 and 600 humans and 50,000 head of cattle.”
– Amarillo (Spanish for yellow) was named after the yellow sub-soil and the yellow blooms of the area’s Yucca plants.
– Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport has the third-largest runway in the world and is designated as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle.

Sara Shantz gives two thumbs up prior to heading into the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN
Sara Shantz gives two thumbs up prior to heading into the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. IAN SHANTZ/TORONTO SUN

ishantz@postmedia.com

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