AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Whether you’re passing through on Route 66 or your end goal is to reach Amarillo by morning, the cultural and economic center of the Texas Panhandle has something to offer to everyone. While it may be best known for its involvement in Route 66 or attractions such as Wonderland Amusement Park or The Big Texan Steak Ranch, Amarillo has no shortage of sights to see and fascinating factoids.
MyHighPlains.com compiled a few of the most fun facts about Amarillo, Texas, split into six subjects on one of the United States’ most interesting Route 66 destinations.
1. A town of any other name might still be Amarillo
According to Fredrick Rathjen’s “The Texas Panhandle Frontier” and the Texas State Historical Association, Amarillo was originally “Oneida” when merchants and the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway began building in the area. The town became “Amarillo” after the large playa lake and the yellow subsoil, grasses, and Yucca plant blooms native to the area; subsequently, according to the editor of the Tascosa Pioneer, employees of the FW&DC in the area mispronounced the Spanish pronunciation of the name so often that the town shifted from “Ah-mah-ree-yoh” to “Am-uh-rill-oh.”
Amarillo also has a number of other monickers, aside from “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and the “Yellow City.” According to the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation and the TSHA, not only is Amarillo also the self-proclaimed “Helium Capital of the World” due to being the home of the United States Helium Plant, but also “Rotor City, USA” in relation to being the home of Bell Textron’s aircraft assembly plant and “Bomb City” for hosting Pantex, the only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility in the country.
2. “The Grand Canyon of Texas”
25 miles from downtown Amarillo and 14 miles from the main streets of Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon has been recorded as the second-largest canyon in the US. Known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas” by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Palo Duro Canyon State Park hosts hiking, biking and equestrian trails, campsites, and the TEXAS Outdoor Musical. As noted by the city, Paul Green’s “TEXAS” musical opened in 1966 after the success of the sound and light show “Thundering Sounds of the West” in the previous summer, and remains a major draw to the Palo Duro park every season.
3. Weather and wide open spaces
The weather in the Amarillo area is notoriously volatile even compared to other regions of Texas, featuring unpredictable patterns, massive temperature changes through the day, heavy winds, hail and dust storms, and flooding. This is due to its placement in the Llano Estacado (or “Staked Plains”) region of the US, which covers parts of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle and was described by the TSHA as one of the largest mesas on the North American continent.
The flat grasslands, low humidity, and high elevation that come with the region have meant the Amarillo area, amid the literal “High Plains”, exists in a steppe climate. Similar to a desert, as noted by KAMR Local 4 News Chief Meteorologist John Harris, the lack of moisture in the air translates into less insulation, contributing to the drastic temperature drops that can occur at nighttime and the lack of a proper heat index. Due to its cold snaps and literally-dry heat, Amarillo was noted in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data as the coldest city in Texas.
Apart from its temperature, Amarillo’s unique geography also means that it’s home to the highest density of playa lakes on the continent, according to the TPWD. These lakes, while commonly at risk from industrial and agricultural development, are “refueling points” for an extensive number of cranes, waterfowl, and shorebirds. They also serve as recharging points for the Ogallala Aquifer system, which supplies much of the water for habitats and communities across the High Plains.
4. Steeds, signs, and masterpieces
Amarillo has a vibrant culture full of art and music, including being home to a few iconic art features that make for eccentric scavenger hunts around the community.
As it also serves as home to the headquarters of the American Quarter Horse Association, a city-wide art project in Amarillo was created to allow visitors to follow the hoof prints of the versatile all-American breed. There are dozens of decorated horse statues around the city in the Hoof Prints of the American Quarter Horse series, sponsored by local businesses and brought to life by local artists.
Road signs from the Dynamite Museum artist collective are also scattered around the Amarillo area, with a high concentration in the Mariposa Eco-village. As noted by the city, the signs were designed with “no rhyme or reason” to the often-cryptic, sometimes-unsettling messages, and was at one point the largest urban art project in the world. The TSHA detailed that the installation was funded by the eccentric and controversial Amarillo businessman Stanley Marsh 3, who was also the creator of Cadillac Ranch. A member of the Dynamite Museum and West Texas A&M University associate professor Jon Revett has been credited with a number of the iconic road signs, and has spoken about his connection to the project on platforms such as the local “Hey Amarillo” podcast with Jason Boyett.
Local businesses, organizations, and artists have also contributed to an ever-growing collection of murals around the city. As shown in published information, the highest concentration of murals can be found in the downtown area, with a local mural wall and pieces reflecting iconic scenes and symbols from the community. However, entries in the 60-plus mural series can be found as far west as the “Texas is Texas” mural on Route 66, near Bushland, and as far north as the “Vineyards and Nuke City Veg Urban Garden Mural” on Cabernet Way.
5. Amarillo, a musical muse
While there are plenty of physical art pieces and installations around Amarillo, the area has also been a major player in a wide range of songs, films, television shows, and the lives of entertainment icons.
In the world of music, the city is best known for the song “Amarillo by Morning” as sung by the likes of George Strait. However, it was originally written by Amarillo songwriter and musician Terry Stafford, with his writing partner Paul Fraser. It met a decent amount of success upon its release in 1973 as a B-side track for “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose,” but received a “heavy radio response” according to Cash Box reports, and was subject at the time to a movement from local residents to declare it the anthem of the city.
However, “Amarillo by Morning” is certainly not the only song inspired by or featuring the city. Others include Big Kenny and John Rich’s “Amarillo Sky,” Terry Allen’s “Amarillo Highway (For Dave Hickey),” Tony Christie’s “(Is This the Way to) Amarillo,” and Nat King Cole’s “Route 66.”
Amarillo is also the hometown of a long list of notable figures from music, television, and film, including musicians like Lacey Brown and Rohn Rich as well as actors such as Carolyn Jones of “The Addams Family,” Arden Cho of “Teen Wolf,” Taylor Page Henderson of “Hocus Pocus 2,” Harry Northup of “Silence of the Lambs,” and Paula Trickey of “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
6. The High Plains on the air
On another note about Amarillo music, city officials note that it was the home to one of the first licensed radio stations in the country, WDAG, which broadcasted the first radio concert in 1922.
Apart from its musical reputation, Amarillo has also been featured in a range of films, television shows, and documentaries. While it was the subject of works such as the documentaries “Plutonium Circus,” “The ’56 Fire,” and “The Grapes of Wrath: We Shall Overcome,” it was also featured in classic films such as “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
In the realm of television, Amarillo was the host city for Oprah Winfrey for six weeks in the late 1990s, when the talk show host was embroiled in a lawsuit with the Texas cattle industry after her show aired an episode that included a discussion about mad cow disease. Industry experts, including Amarillo businessman Paul Engler, claimed that the segment contributed to a drop in cattle prices. As noted in reporting from the Texas Tribune, Winfrey hosted the show from the city over the course of the trial, in which the involved jury voted unanimously in her favor.
The lawsuit was also commemorated, at the time, in t-shirts.
More recently, the Amarillo area was also among the filming locations for the award-winning Paramount Plus show “1883,” which stands as a sequel to the widely-successful “Yellowstone.”