What is a Petrified Forest?
Nearly every time Tom and I explore one of our magical National Parks, we immediately want to go back. But, return trips certainly won’t get us any closer to our goal of visiting all 59 Parks! Fortunately, the Petrified National Forest National Park is about a five-hour drive from Saguaro National Park, AZ, a place we have been escaping Seattle winters each February, since we fell in love with the picturesque cacti.
President’s weekend 2016 seemed to be the perfect time to “bag” another Park, so, after enjoying hiking among the Saguaro (and a little pool time at the Loews Ventanna Canyon Resort), we pack the rental car and head north on highway 77.
About an hour into the drive we stop at Catalina State Park, on the north side of Tucson, for a little loop hike. A well-defined trail of coarse sand meanders through the Saguaro and across a couple of streams at the base of the Catalina Mountains. It’s a “locals” crowd and much less crowded than Sabino Canyon – our regular haunt.
Back in the car, happy that we didn’t encounter any rattlesnakes waking in the warming desert sun, we continue north to Holbrook, the closest town to The Petrified National Forest. The Best Western, complete with pigeons pecking our roof, is less than attractive and the Mexican restaurant barely passes the Mexican test. The next morning, we are up and on our way after one of those particularly bad lobby breakfasts.
We enter the Park on Highway 40 which parallels the famed Route 66. Our first stop is Tawa Point where we stand in awe of the Painted Desert, named for the beautiful layers of exposed color formed by ages of a changing environment. We walk north along a rim type trail, and get our first glimpse of the Painted Desert Inn, just as those early Route 66 travelers did on their long desert drives. Today the Inn is a visitor center and most of the petrified wood construction is covered with clay. Walking through the interior really takes one back to the 1920’s. The original pictorial stained glass, metal light fixtures, dark support beams and even a café have all been lovingly restored.
We complete the driving loop through the Painted Desert Wilderness Area and then head south to the actual Petrified National Park which was designated in 1906 as a National Monument and a National Park in 1962, to preserve one of the largest petrified wood deposits in the world. Unfortunately, theft has been a historical problem but there is still plenty to see. What a day; clear blue skies, low 80’s and no people!
First stop is Newspaper Rock. With over 650 petroglyphs on one large rock, the Ancestral Puebloans seem quite chatty. Next stop, Blue Mesa trail, a very steep one-mile descent through layers of blues, purples and grays carved by centuries of erosion into the land’s history. We spot our first petrified logs on the floor surrounding the mesa – amazing. After getting our heart rates up on the ascent out, we enjoy a quick snack in the shade of a nice shelter.
It’s hard to believe that this arid area was a tropical rainforest 225 million years ago with vast rivers and dinosaurs roaming the land. Giant conifers grew to 180 feet. These trees died and were covered in sediment. The logs soaked up groundwater and silica from volcanic ash and eventually crystallized into quartz creating the multi-colored stone logs that intrigue us today.
Next stop is the fantastic Crystal Forest walk, a .75-mile trail littered with large and small petrified logs. Many appear to have broken into huge clean sections just like a candy cane does when one taps it. Finally, we conclude our visit with a walk around the Giant Logs, including Old Faithful, a 10-foot diameter log, at the educational Rainbow Forest Museum.
Pleasantly surprised by how much we appreciated our day in the Park, we decide that “life is short” and another night Holbrook doesn’t fit in. We grab our bags and head for Flagstaff. On the drive, we stop to see the famous Meteor Crater right before closing. Crazy as it sounds, this is a huge hole, nearly one mile across and 550 feet deep, formed 50,000 years ago when a large meteor smashed into the earth and then disintegrated.
The next morning our flip flops are shocked by the ice and snow. Flagstaff is at 6,900 feet. As we descend via lovely Oak Creek Canyon Scenic drive to Sedona, our first destination today, we skip our planned hike due to heavy rains and too many river crossings. Once in Sedona we savor brunch at Java Love and then drive outside out of town for a hiking “taste test” since we are newbies to the area. And, wow, the towering, rounded red rocks surrounded by Arizona cypress, pinion pine and juniper don’t disappoint. Neither did a little time at the luxuriously famous Enchantment Resort. Looks like we’ll be exploring Sedona next February instead of Tucson.
35 down and 24 to go, we enjoy time visiting with cousins in Phoenix prior to flying back to the Seattle rain!