Our first stop crossing in to Arizona from New Mexico was the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. While the names invoke settings from fiction, I can assure you that they are indeed real places; but let’s not allow reality to steal too much from our imaginations. Instead, let’s allow the vibrant, full of life colors found in the desert and in the transformed properties of wood to inspire us for the day. While the temperatures typically range from comfortable to hot by May, we found ourselves there on an abnormal day with rain, some hail, wind and temperatures not rising above 50 degrees. Ever the stalwart wanderers, we donned our rain coats and headed to the park.
The 28 mile-long main road through the park is laid out to take you directly through both areas by a mostly north to south route. The easiest way to visit them is to pick either the lower entrance or the upper entrance and just follow the road to the other end. We started at the upper end with the Painted Desert. The Painted Desert is a badland area known for its deep colors of reds and purples. While the desert covers a great expanse, the easiest access point to it is here at the Petrified Forest National Park. There are plenty of hikes to take, but the majority of visitors, including us, are content to travel the main road stopping at the individual overlooks and taking the expansive views in from a distance.
We soon came to some ruins at Puerco Pueblo from Ancestral Puebloans to remind us of the people who lived here long ago. The ruins are what remains of a 100 room village used in the 1200s to the 1300s. This stop is also the location of many petroglyphs.
As we continued our journey through the park, we passed several hiking trails, but one that really looked interesting was the Blue Mesa trail. Blue Mesa Road is a 3 mile-long side loop road off of the main road. On this side loop, Blue Mesa trail allows the hiker to walk down to the base of the badlands and follow along them for about a mile. It is an easy, paved trail and we can see in the photo below how the winding path beckons.
It was not until we arrived at the southern part of the park that we found trails with extensive amounts of petrified wood. One of our favorite trails was the Crystal Forest. This is a less than a mile paved walk that allowed us to really see the petrified wood up close and appreciate its range of colors. At the park, we read that the petrified wood was formed from trees that fell and were carried by streams to a floodplain. The trees were then buried by volcanic ash from distant volcanoes. Their encasement slowed the logs decay due to a lack of oxygen until silica-laden (from the volcanic ash) groundwater seeped in to the logs and replaced the wood with silica. Petrified wood is actually not wood at all, but minerals that have replaced the wood so perfectly as to maintain the minutest details including bark and rings. The process of petrification can happen quickly. According to A.C. Sigleo in “Organic Chemistry of Solidified Wood,” at some places in Yellowstone, wood petrifies in the course of a year. While it is hard for me to fully understand the process of wood fibers being replaced by minerals, I think we can all see that the results are stunning…
And that wraps up our trip to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. This is a great park for seeing the major highlights with just a few hours time, and if those highlights encourage a desire to see more, the park has plenty of hikes to allow for a more in-depth experience.
Also, I do want to recommend the jackets we have to all travelers facing different climes. I found mine in Alabama at a Columbia outlet, but we ended up purchasing it, along with one for Chris, from Amazon for less. The outer shell is a waterproof rain coat with a removable fleece jacket inside. The two can be worn separately, or together – now that is what I am talking about for multipurpose items as a fulltime RVer! Our coats kept us warm and dry the whole day! We were expecting hot and sunny weather, but our coats were perfect for the 40 degree driving rain and hail we faced.
Fun Facts & Tips:
- When crossing in to Arizona, double check the time. They do not follow daylight savings.
- There are a lot of local places where you can buy petrified wood, but it is illegal to take it from the park. When you enter the park, they will ask you if you have any petrified wood in your vehicle that you have purchased. I don’t know what they do if you answer affirmatively, but they must keep some sort of record of it, so that if they find it on you when you leave, you will be ok to keep it.
- They do take the America the Beautiful national park pass.
- We stayed at OK RV park in Holbrook, AZ.