National Park Number: 35 of 59
We get asked all the time which park has been our favorite so far. We’ve talked before about why we hesitate to answer this question—for one thing, we encounter each park under different circumstances: sometimes we run into bad weather or logistical problems, other times we happen to attend a stellar ranger program or we’re all just in a particularly good mood.
But the other issue with choosing a favorite is that it’s hard to compare them; some parks are massive and majestic (Glacier, Lake Clark), some are subtle (Everglades), some are historically fascinating but not too exciting for recreation (Hot Springs), some are small (Congaree), some too massive to come close to fully experiencing (Wrangell-St. Elias), some are mostly underwater (Dry Tortugas, Biscayne).
And then there are parks like Petrified Forest: accessible and varied, geologically and historically interesting, and sized so you feel like you can really take in what it has to offer. This place felt like such a good balance between what we’ve loved about other parks; if you’ve never been or if, like us, you’d never even heard of it, go if you can. We were just delighted by it.
Petrified Forest surprised us with both its beauty and its number of things to do. When we showed up at the visitor’s center our first day, the volunteer at the desk pointed out a few highlights on the map, then said, “The park closes at 5, so you’ve got 5 hours. But trust me, you’re not gonna be here 5 hours.”
This man, it turns out, was kind of a fuddy-duddy about the park; there is waaaay more than 5 hours worth of stuff to do and see here. The park road stretches 28 miles through the length of the park and there are several short boardwalks and interpretive trails that show off the biggest, longest, and sparkliest petrified logs. But there is also open hiking in the park and the rangers publish guides that lead you step by step to some of the best off-trail sights. The hiking is easy—there’s not much elevation in the park and the mud rock makes for a nice walking surface—and the views are just spectacular.
This park is named, obviously, for its petrified wood—it has one of the largest concentrations of it on Earth, and some of the most colorful examples that exist. But the park also encompasses gorgeous blue and red badlands and a huge number of petroglyph sites, plus loads of dinosaur fossils.
After starting our visit at the visitor’s center and getting the lay of the land, we headed south to check out Agate Bridge, a huge petrified log spanning a wash so that it forms a bridge. The log is now held up by a concrete support, which was fascinating because the concrete mix was filled with smaller pieces of petrified wood. Definitely not how the NPS would do things now, but an interesting look into the old days. The area around the bridge was sloping badlands, some eroded into hoodoos, and we explored off-trail a bit.
Then we headed to Jasper Forest to meet up with two park volunteers, who led us on a hike down into the valley to First Forest. When Petrified Forest first opened up to tourism, a road led visitors from the train depot through this valley, and the collection of petrified wood they saw here was the first forest they came upon, hence the name. The badlands in this area were striped with incredibly rich colors; as we hiked down into them, we found ourselves surrounded by petrified wood, much more of it than we’d imagined the park contained. I don’t know why—we knew this area has one of the highest concentrations of petrified wood in the world, but the amount took us aback. There was just SO MUCH. Geologists think there’s such a high concentration here because it may have been a log jam area—soon after the logs fell, they were covered in sediment filled with volcanic ash; groundwater carried silica from the ash into the logs, where it turned into quartz crystals. Other minerals, like iron, were swept along with silica, which formed the rainbow of colors we see in the fossilized logs now.
Petrified wood is an extremely hard rock—a 7.8 on a hardness scale of 1 to 10. The only rocks harder are diamonds and rubies. So the park’s not worried about people hurting the rock, and visitors are free to touch it, sit or climb on it (although this was discouraged along the main boardwalks, presumably because the park doesn’t want people to fall off and get hurt.) It was wonderful being free to let the kids run wild, touch what they wanted, walk where they wanted and climb everything. We love putting them in “Yes!” environments, where we don’t have to say no to anything.
Many of the logs retain the look of real trees covered in bark; we learned this “bark” part is actually the petrification of something called the cambrian membrane, which lies just inside the bark of a living tree and so has the same shape. We also noticed that some of the rock looked exactly like plain wood, and this kind was usually chipped. This is premineralization wood, which was already decaying when it began to be petrified. It’s weaker and lighter and looks exactly like the results of wood chopping.
For most of our hike, we followed the old roads built by the CCC in the early days of the park. The roads, covered in local rock (though not petrified wood), were partially destroyed by the park later, because people were using them to drive out into the backcountry and steal petrified wood. At 168 lbs. per cubic foot, they would have had a hard time carrying it back to the main road. So the gravel of the back roads was scattered, though many of them are still pretty easy to follow as backcountry trails.
After our fascinating hike through First Forest, we headed to the south end of the park to walk the Giant Logs boardwalk, which has the park’s largest example of petrified wood, plus lots of other samples and a stunning overlook of the badlands.
While we were visiting Petrified Forest, we stayed in the driveway of our very dear friends, the Lymans, who live in Snowflake. Some of the most wonderful people we’ve ever met, the Lymans were missionaries in Portugal at the same time as David and I. They are two people full of love and wisdom and stories, and they made us feel so happy and good that after our first day in the park, we spent the entire next day bumming around their house, eating Kaye’s cooking and letting her be grandma to our kids and listening to Gordon’s fantastic stories about living and working in the Southwest. We finally peeled ourselves away that night, but we were fairly tempted to take up permanent residence. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: the very best part of traveling around the U.S. is getting to see people we normally wouldn’t have a chance to visit.
Alas, our visit with the Lymans ended, but we did have another glorious day of park-going to look forward to. We started early the next day because we wanted to do lots of backcountry exploring; in the morning, we hiked out to Martha’s Butte, a badland surrounded by limestone boulders, many of which are covered in petroglyphs. We're nuts about petroglyphs, and seeing them so far out in the wild, with no other hikers and no interpretive signs to point out where or what we were looking at, felt like magic. We hiked around the butte, David mountain-goating around on boulders, and were thrilled every time we found a new petroglyph. We also saw a rabbit, and on our way back noticed loads of animal tracks—rabbit, coyote, lizard and snake—which the kids loved.
After Martha’s Butte, we headed to the Teepees, where the badlands resemble conical tents; there we parked and started our hike through the Blue Forest to Blue Mesa. These areas are named after the badlands, which are, I’m sure you could guess, blue. The color was so rich and so different from what you normally see in dirt that we were enchanted on this hike. The mudstone was nice and cushy to hike on and the views over the surrounding hills were incredible.
After stopping to check out more petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, the Route 66 memorial, and the Painted Desert Inn, we went to hike down to Onyx Bridge. The sun was getting low and we knew we wouldn’t make it all the way to the bridge which, like Agate Bridge, is a petrified log spanning a wash (only it’s much bigger than Agate). The park closes at 5 and they’re pretty aggressive about shooing people out. So we only went to the halfway point of the hike, where there is another group of petroglyphs. The buttes were red all around us, we saw signs of animals everywhere, and the setting sun made everything glow.
I worry I’m gushing too much over these hikes, or over the whole park in general, maybe. We occasionally get emails to the effect of, “Do you really like all the parks as much as you say you do? Aren’t you maybe a bit too rosy about the whole thing?” And the truth is that we really, really do like all the parks as much as we say we do. Every last one of them has wooed me in its own way, and though our days don’t always run smoothly and not every day of our trip is the Best Day Ever, the parks themselves never stop astounding us.
So I hope that when I gush, you know that it’s not because we’re never running into problems or because every day we spend in a park is filled with rainbows and sunshine and love for all humanity. It’s because even on our worst days, on the days when the kids seemed possessed by demons, or when we’re tired or sick or ornery, or when nothing is running smoothly, the parks are still—honestly, legitimately—the most incredible places we could imagine spending our time.