Sunday, March 5, 2017

Petrified Forest National Park

Colorful rocks are petrified wood and they're a lot bigger than the photo suggests.
Last installment of the Grand Canyon road trip. Honest.
View of the Painted Desert

I have been known to toss out the occasional disparaging comment about "windshield tourists." Well, Petrified Forest National Park is a park designed with windshield tourists in mind. The park is meant to be toured by car: its scenic drive wends it way from north to south (or south to north, depending on which end you enter the park from) stopping at a number of overlooks and points of interest along the way. You start with views of the Painted Desert and end by crusing through the Petrified Forest, complete with giant logs, or vice versa.
Painted Desert Inn

We entered the park at the north end, from the exit on I-40, stopped at the Visitor Center there, and then ambled southward. At both the Visitor Center and at the Painted Desert Inn volunteers gave me a pep talk about being a VIP at the park. We noticed the park's VIP RV site close to the Visitor Center; it appeared to be more than adequate in terms of creature comforts for anyone volunteering there. You know, full hookups, decent parking pads, etc., and possibly even some natural shade in the form of trees.

Both volunteers I spoke with mentioned the park has a real need for help during the summer. No surprise there -- no one in their right mind picks Arizona as a place to be a VIP in July and August, with the possible exceptions of being tucked away in the mountains somewhere, like maybe campground hosting up in the pines at about the 7,000 foot level. To be honest, though, I'm not sure I'd want to be at Petrified Forest NP other than passing through at any time of the year. The landscape is a just a little too unearthly for me.

Anyway, north of the Interstate, the viewscape tends to be the Painted Desert. Very colorful and also very alien. At some of the overlooks, you look out at a landscape that appears to be pretty much devoid of life of any sort. No vegetation, nothing.

It is possible to go hiking and back country camping at Petrified Forest. In fact, a hiking trail down into the Painted Desert Wilderness starts near the Painted Desert Inn. The big question I have is "Why?" I can understand (maybe) the desire to do a hike that would take a person away from the tour road and out of hearing range of the Interstate (although it is astounding just how far traffic noises can carry when there's not much wind and no other competing ambient sounds) but why would you want to camp out there? It is, after all, an environment in which guessing wrong on just how much water to carry can get you killed. But maybe that's part of the attraction: the easiest sort of X-game to play, one where all you have to do to risk your life is underestimate how much water you're going to need to survive the trek back to your car.

Back, to get back to the tour, when you begin at the I-40 end, you start off by getting to stare at the Painted Desert and pause at the Painted Desert Inn, a popular tourist stop operated by the Fred Harvey company back in the heyday of Route 66. At some point the Inn faded into run-down shabbiness and closed in the mid-1960s; the Park Service came close to demolishing it in the 1970s. No doubt the completion of Interstate 40 and the overall increase in the speed of travel contributed to its demise. A lot of stuff by the side of the road vanished when people no longer had to slow down for every local intersection. In the case of the Painted Desert Inn, a campaign to preserve it eventually resulted in it being listed as a National Historic Landmark. It has been thoroughly restored and now serves as a point of interest in the park.

Like a number of the western parks, Petrified Forest had a local artisan working on (and selling) traditional craft items, jewelry in this case, at the Inn. I fear I'm enough of a cynic that I find myself thinking of those people as the token Indians. Hey, we stole your country from your people, but here's a spot to set up your table to sell trinkets to the tourists and we'll maybe acknowledge that Kit Carson was a genocidal asshole and include a panel or two on a wayside that mentions the Long Walk. Maybe.

Then again I don't have the type of personality that would find it rewarding to work on anything with an audience staring at me so have a hard time imagining that someone else might actually like being in that position. And for sure if you're making jewelry to sell it is kind of nice to have the customers come to you instead of having to hassle with placing it in stores or going to craft fairs.

Moving on from the Painted Desert Inn, there are a couple more overlooks to enable more staring at alien landscapes before you hit the Route 66 exhibit on the north side of I-40. This being Arizona, I tend to think the addition of a dessicated skeleton and a vulture or two ("it's a dry heat") would improve the wayside, but I doubt the people who design interpretive displays would agree.

South of I-40, you hit a couple points of interest and overlooks that highlight Native American history and Puebloan culture. There's the usual pueblo ruin -- I must confess I'm getting to the point where I tend to think after you've seen one set of crumbling rock walls you've seen them all; the only big difference is in the color of the local stone -- as well as some interesting petroglyphs. One site has a spiral petroglyph that is hit directly by the sun on only one day of the year (the summer solstice), as well as a lot of petroglyphs of what archeologists assure us are images of mountain lions but to me always look suspiciously like lizards, maybe because of the exaggerated claws. Petroglyphs are drawings carved into the rock, usually on surfaces that were covered with "desert varnish" so there's a contrast between the dark surface and the underlying lighter colored stone.

One of the overlooks is at a site called Newspaper Rock. Supposedly there are a gazillion petroglyphs carved into the stone below the overlook. I don't know if it was the angle of the lighting when we were there or if a lot of them have just eroded or faded through time, but there didn't seem to be enough of them to merit having a special name and dedicated overlook. Then again, maybe the engineers who laid out the road calculated they needed overlooks or stops of some sort at certain intervals to keep traffic appropriately slow for a scenic byway and the petroglyphs happened to be the most interesting thing available at that particular point. I wasn't the only person underwhelmed by Newspaper Rock. A fellow who was traveling north stopped at the pueblo ruin and said the petroglyphs there were more numerous and easier to see than the ones a couple miles down the road.

After Newspaper Rock, the road gets into badlands and the actual petrified forest. Once again, it's a thoroughly other worldly landscape, very arid and empty but with these humongous chunks of what used to be trees, really big trees, millions of years ago. The trees were buried by mud, the mud hardened into sandstone, various minerals migrated into the trees (I have no idea how that process would work, but it obviously did). The petrified trees wound up being harder than the surrounding soft sandstone so as the sandstone erodes, the trees are exposed. In a few cases, some remarkably long intact pieces remain, but in general as the sandstone eroded and the trees dropped they fractured into pieces that look so neatly done that you'd swear they were cut on purpose. Nope, just a trick of nature and the natural fracture lines in the crystals.
Note large petrified log perched on top of eroding hill.
There are a couple examples of long logs that were in danger of dropping and breaking in past decades that the Park Service stabilized. Current literature notes that if a similar situation were to develop today the policy would be to just let it happen, allow natural forces to proceed unimpeded, and simply update the interpretive material. On one level, a person can applaud that decision. Yes, it is always better not to mess with Mother Nature, even if it just a case of preventing a stone log from rolling and breaking. On the other hand, and once again the cynic emerges, as the long as the object in question isn't a potential safety hazard, it's a whole lot cheaper to do nothing and then revise a trail brochure than it is to get a maintenance crew together, purchase materials, and build something to stabilize an eroding chunk of rock.

There is a Visitor Center at the south end of the park, too. It has a small museum area that emphasizes dinosaurs and fossil finds. A short trail behind the Visitor Center leads you through an assortment of giant petrified logs or log fragments. It was suprisingly interesting. You'd think that after you've seen a couple giant chunks of petrified wood you'd have seen them all, but nope, not quite true.
Humongous petrified log with concrete pad inserted under it to prevent its collapse.
We didn't spend quite as much time at Petrified Forest as a person could even if they are just doing the windshield route. It was colder, windier, and rainier than we would have preferred so we skipped or cut short a couple short trail hikes. It didn't help that the rain included hail. 


  1. Thanks for sharing this. We were there back in the mid 80s, and it is as i remember...barren, harsh, but beautiful.

  2. Fantastic pictures. It looks hotter then hell; but you are wearing jackets?
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. It was December 31 in high desert country. Stiff north wind, temps hovering somewhere in the mid to low 40s.


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