From Phoenix, we traveled north to the Petrified Forest, an unusual area of colorful mesas and ancient fossilized trees about 100 miles east of Flagstaff. We had low expectations and ended up pleasantly surprised!
The park is long and narrow, like Shenandoah, with one main road going from top to bottom. We arrived at the Painted Desert visitor center to find a construction zone, complete with porta-potties and jackhammers. We spread out a picnic at a nearby overlook and ate lunch under a huge blue sky, looking out at the pink and purple rock below us. It’s a very dry place, with a few small scrub bushes clinging to the dusty hills. There’s very little shade, and heat radiates off the ground from the direct sunlight.
We continued our drive down Painted Forest Road after lunch, through a few scenic overlooks, and stopped at the Blue Mesa area for our first hike. This hike turned out, accidentally, to be a fascinating exploration of what’s called an unmaintained trail. It’s essentially a very faint path where a trail used to be. As the Petrified Forest website puts it, “Get off the road. Get off the paved trail. Go for an adventure.” Indeed. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of state park hikes with loudly marked blazes every few feet!
Heading out into the Blue Forest felt like we had landed on Mars. We left the safety of our spaceship (van) and explored until we had gone so far that the van was out of sight and I thought we were probably getting close to the New Mexico border. It was easily the kids’ favorite trail, with the blue badland hills and stunning scenery exemplifying “…the essence of Petrified Forest National Park,” according to NPS.
Our next challenge was the Crystal Forest, a trail filled with huge petrified tree trunks. The trunks are neatly sectioned into pieces, as if cut by some giant woodchopper; as it turns out, this happens naturally over time as the newly formed rock snaps apart. On a related note, National Parks magazine recently highlighted the serious and ongoing issue of thievery in places like Petrified Forest. They reported that the visitor center frequently receives parcels from penitent park thieves who want to clear their consciences by returning the stolen wood.
Back to our trail, it consisted of sparking crystals and intense heat. Since the only trees around are petrified ones, one wonders what the area looked like a couple thousand years ago when it was, perhaps, an actual forest. Cool and shady, probably.
The accepted theory for Petrified Forest is that the logs were buried quickly and deeply by an ancient river filled with sediment, about 200 million years ago. Since we hold a “young earth” view, my own theory is that these trees were formed at creation and washed away in the Flood. It’s amazing to think we might have artifacts here in America that existed in Biblical times!
Once past the Crystal Forest, we stopped for a peek inside the Rainbow Forest museum and a skip around Giant Logs trail before getting back on the road to Flagstaff.