Water, water, water….There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be. — Edward Abbey
I love rain in the desert, yet exploring El Malpais and El Morro National Monuments in the rain just does not seem very easy with Juniper along. I alter course and will visit those parks on my way back from Arizona, and instead tour Petrified Forest National Park, where the rain should be more intermittent today. Before heading west, I do make a quick stop at El Malpais visitor center in Grants to enjoy the expansive view and get an education. Having never traveled I-40 this far west (as an adult), I have a lot of fun stopping off to see more Route 66 relics, particularly in Gallup, where I also take Juniper to the nice – though sadly empty – dog park.
Petrified Forest National Park is not one of America’s grandest national parks. Within its boundaries, there are no jaw-dropping tall peaks, fresh or saltwater coastline, dramatic forest, or singularly notable rock formations. That said, the geologic history of this area is fascinating, and the colorful painted desert and badlands other-worldly. Of course the petrified wood is interesting too, but there is so much more to see!
The Northern end of Petrified Forest National Park (PFNP) is literally just off I-40, making it an easy park to visit on the way to somewhere else. To hit the park’s highlights, one only needs a half day to drive the 28-mile scenic drive between the northern and southern ends of the park. We spent about five hours exploring, which is probably about the length of time that most visitors spend in the park. A full day would be better, to allow more time for hiking the longer (but still short at .4 to 2.6 miles) frontcountry trails. There is a lot more to see at PFNP if one is interested in exploring and camping in the backcountry.
The Painted Desert
Upon exiting the interstate, we enter via the park’s northern entrance, make a quick stop at the Visitor Center, and marvel at the colors of the Painted Desert, otherwise known as the Chinle Formation.
I-40 Intersects the park, just as Route 66 used to. I did not see any Route 66 tarmac here, however one can still see the depression/road bed of the old east-west route.
Puerco Pueblo & Petroglyphs
A .3 mile loop trail leads the visitor through the Puerco Pueblo, which was inhabited from around 1200 through 1380.
I find Puerco Pueblo to be one of the most fascinating areas of Petrified Forest National Park, not just for the ruins of the 100+room pueblo site, but also because of the numerous petroglyphs, which are easily viewed from the paved (accessible) trail.
These petroglyphs are quite different from any I have seen in New Mexico and Utah, and include a Kachina Panel…
Footprints and a solstice line…
Birds, snakes, people, and more.
About a mile south of Puerco Pueblo there is an impressive petroglyph site called Newspaper Rock.
Newspaper Rock is not a single rock, but a number of rocks covered with petroglyphs which were created by the ancestral Puebloan people who were living, farming, and hunting along the Puerco River between 650 and 2,000 years ago. The visitor views this area from an overlook; access to the rocks is not allowed. According to the NPS website this is because the hillside is unstable, however I imagine an additional reason is for protection from vandalism. Visitors may view details of the main rockface through the park’s binoculars.
Is Blue Mesa really blue? Sometimes! And purple, gray, beige, rust, maroon, chartreuse…a thousand different colors that seem to change with the light. In the 45 minutes that I spend in this area, the light changes dramatically as clouds move across the sky and rain showers move in. The multi-hued badlands are awesome! Blue Mesa is where visitors coming from the northern end of the park will see their first petrified wood.
The Petrified Forests
Legends of America summarizes the formation of Arizona’s Petrified Forest more succinctly than I can:
“More than 200 million years ago, large trees and rich vegetation flourished in northeast Arizona. At that time, the region was a tropical wetland with abundant streams and rivers. During heavy rains, the waterways would flood, sweeping fallen trees into the sandy floodplains. Later, volcanic lava destroyed the forest, and the remains were embedded into sediment comprised of volcanic ash, mud, and water. Trees are transitioned to stone by the process of permineralization, a process of fossilization in which the organic materials are replaced with minerals, such as quartz, making a ‘cast’ of the original organism. Millions of years later, the petrified logs were revealed by erosion.”
Agate Bridge is one of the park’s most notable examples of Petrified wood. Although the scale is not easily discernible in my image, Agate Bridge is an impressive 110 feet long. Over many thousands of years, floodwaters eroded the rock beneath this petrified tree. The supportive concrete span was installed in 1917.
The petrified remains of Jasper Forest are scattered along the base of the badlands.
The gorgeous colors of the petrified wood are an inspiring Southwestern palette.
At Crystal Forest it is too hot and sunny for me to leave Juniper in the car or to walk her, so I just hop out of the car to take a peak. This forest is named for the shimmering quartz crystals present in the petrified wood.
Rainbow Forest (on a hill behind the southern end of the park’s visitor center – the Rainbow Forest Museum) is a short trail meandering amongst a high concentration of petrified logs, including some real giants.
Petrified Forest is one of only a handful of truly dog-friendly national parks. Leashed dogs are allowed on all paths and trails – really anywhere a human can go, with the exception of entering the visitor centers. Our only other national park that comes close to being this dog-friendly is Acadia.
I really enjoyed my visit, but then I do so love the desert. Hopefully after viewing my photo tour, you will put Petrified Forest National Park on your travel wish list. Time and temperature constraints prevented me from taking longer hikes, seeing the Agate House, and spending time at the Painted Desert Inn and Rainbow Forest museums. That just gives me a good excuse to return one day!
Next: Downtown Flagstaff & Sedona
Wondering where else we’ve wandered? Check out our Parks List.