A Walk on the Wild Side: Petrified Forest National Park

Although petrified wood can be found in all 50 U.S. States, Petrified Forest National Park has some of the highest concentrations in the world. We spent two days exploring this park as well as taking two overnight backpacking trips in the north and south wilderness areas.

Scientists believe that two hundred million years ago the area where the Petrified Forest National Park lies today was located at the latitude of Costa Rica. It was a rainforest and part of the supercontinent Pangaea. When trees were downed they accumulated in rivers and were periodically buried by volcanic ash. Water dissolved the ash and transferred it into the logs, forming quartz crystals and petrifying the wood. Eventually the land moved north to its present location.

Petrified Forest became a national park in 1962. It was visited by about 643,000 people in 2016, making it the 29th-most visited park. We entered at the south end and stopped at the Rainbow Forest Museum to view some of the biggest petrified logs. We also picked up our free backcountry permit. The wilderness access point was about two miles down the road, and we parked our car for the night and began hiking.

Petrified wood outside the Rainbow Forest Museum

The park has two wilderness areas, one in the south part and one in the northern portion. There are no trails; you must hike a certain distance from the road and then can camp anywhere. Darren led the way, and we aimed for a small butte in the distance. We had to climb up and down several piles of rocks before things opened up. As we walked, we noticed occasional pieces of petrified wood around us. We also saw pronghorn prints in the sand. The pronghorn is North America’s fastest land animal and can sprint up to 60 miles per hour.

Pieces of petrified wood near our camp

Around the corner from the butte we were hiking toward was the end of a canyon. We set up our camp admist the amphitheater of rocks and spent a peaceful night there. In the morning we hiked back toward the road to meet up with our car. In all, we trekked about 1.5 miles there and about 1 mile back.

Darren outside our tent at sunset
Our tent lit up against the night sky

Back in the car, we continued north on the park road and stopped at several of the viewpoints. We hiked around Crystal Forest, viewed Jasper Forest from above and drove through Blue Mesa.

Crystal Forest
Jasper Forest
Blue Mesa

Besides the petrified wood we saw at each stop, we also toured the ruins of Puerco Pueblo. Between about 1250 and 1400 the Puebloan people lived in a 100 room structure built around an open plaza. Besides the remains of the structure, there were also petroglyphs on the nearby rocks. It is just one of about 600 archeological sites in the park.

Puerco Pueblo ruins
Puerco Pueblo petroglyphs

After crossing Interstate 40 and old Route 66, we reached the northern portion of the park. Here, the piles of petrified wood were replaced with badlands and what is known as the Painted Desert. The brilliant colored rocks stretch from the east end of the Grand Canyon. After obtaining our permits we drove to the Painted Desert inn. This historic building was operated as a Harvey House from 1947 to 1963 and is a museum today.

Painted Desert

The northern park wilderness hiking starts from the inn. A trail leads down into the Painted Desert then stops. As this is a much larger area than its southern counterpart, Darren used his phone to drop pins in a mapping app so that we could easily find out way back. We needed to cross Lithodendron Wash before camping was allowed. Similar to the previous day, Darren aimed for a rock tower in the distance.

Water in Lithodendron Wash

We hiked through a maze of other washes before arriving at the tower. It was fairly windy so we spent a few minutes finding a spot that could shield us from the burnt of the gusts. It continued to be windy until sunset and then the gusts subsided. The next day, as we hiked back to the Painted Desert Inn and our car, the pieces of petrified wood around us glistened like broken glass in the early morning sun. Total hiking distance was about 4.5 miles. 

Sunset view from our tent
Sunrise the next morning

Our time in Petrified Forest National Park provided us with the opportunity to observe the stark beauty of the wood, tour ruins and explore its wild side through two overnight backpacking trips.

Next, we will continue north to the Great Basin Desert and Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

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