Visiting the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest National Park was one of the most profoundly beautiful experiences of my life, and especially so because I didn’t have big expectations for the park. Lower Antelope Canyon was amazing, but I had seen many pictures before, so I expected it to be amazing. I didn’t have any for the Petrified Forest or Painted Desert.
This was despite what I’d heard growing up at home – my Dad talked about the place a lot. He had gone on a trip in the Southwest with coworkers more than 20 years ago.. but he went to Arches National Park. I remember that he purchased the VHS tape from the gift shop and had us watch it a few times after he got back. Over the years, he talked about the Petrified Forest it enough that somehow I got the impression that he’d been there before. But it wasn’t until we went on the trip that I found out that he had never been.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, and it was still hot. Like in the mid-90s maybe. But luckily, it was also pretty breezy, which made the heat more tolerable.
We pulled up to a fairly empty visitors center. We learned that the painted desert was named by an expedition of Spanish explorers who called it “El Desierto Pintado.”
One could see for miles and miles, and the hills were full of different colors. We picked up a map from the NPS and started driving to the different scenic viewpoints. You enter along Route 66, and can drive about 25 miles south through the park along the designated road. We stopped for views at Kachina and Chinde point.
There’s a cool part of the park where you drive over Route 66 as you head south. The landscape changes over a bit, revealing striated badlands with some pretty amazing topography that stands in stark contrast to the blue sky.
There is a short, paved and gravel hiking loop around the Blue Mesa area, where the hills are covered with a “bluish bentonite clay”. Walking around there felt particularly … lunar to me. There were only 2-4 other people in the entire area other than my dad and myself, which made it even easier to imagine that you were on the surface of a different world.
This is where I was first able to see the petrified wood of the national park up close. Little pieces were littered across the flat areas, as if the trunks had rolled down the hills and shattered. It’s interesting to think about the unique circumstances that cause wood to become petrified. There had to have been a forest here so many years ago. It’s hard enough to imagine the area covered in a dense forest. Then the area needs to be covered with silt and volcanic ash and cut off from oxygen by some large-scale event. Then groundwater would seep in to allow the silica to diffuse into the wood. And then, through lifetimes of erosion, the logs are finally revealed.
It was getting to the late afternoon as we continued along the drive. The Agate Bridge (not pictured) is a well preserved log that formed a bridge across a small ravine. In 1911, supports were added underneath to prevent it from falling apart. The National Park Service has adopted a different philosophy now; today, the bridge would be allowed to continue to crumble and left in its natural state.
As we headed further south, we ventured into areas of the park that had bigger and bigger logs. We walked a loop through the Crystal Forest and enjoyed a silty-white landscape littered with logs and an expansive sky that was deep blue and orange because of the setting sun. I feel the need to reiterate how profoundly beautiful this experience was. The air was still warm, there was a strong breeze flowing, the sun was low in the sky and getting lower. The ground was white and littered with petrified logs and chunks thereof. You could see for miles and miles in each direction. And there was nobody else around other than my Dad and I.
Walking along the loop, we could get a close-up look at the petrified logs.
As the sun set further, the whitish logs became a deep golden color.
This scene was particularly beautiful and amusing to me. It reminded me of those idyllic scenes with a tractor and hay bales – except the bales in this case were petrified logs weighing hundreds of pounds.
Somehow, impossibly, the scenes continued to get better. The sun continued to set, and the sky lit up with pink, wispy clouds, and the landscape lost its long, harsh shadows.
We pulled over to the side of the road where two other cars and groups of people stood to catch the sunset. We watched this one cloud hover and change for a long time.
On the way out of the park, we passed by a few touristy gift shops that were selling petrified wood. They were closed due to the time of the day.
We got dinner at a steakhouse in Holbrook, Arizona. When’s the last time I ate from a salad bar like this?
After dinner, we headed west on 40 to our next destination: Flagstaff.