Petrified Forest National Park
Our very last day on this trip involved a lot of driving!
First, we headed east for almost two hours towards Petrified Forest National Park in Holbrook, AZ. The park is situated on each side of I-40. The Northern part features the famous Painted Desert – a desert of badlands. Badlands are areas of dry terrain where sedimentary rock and clay-rich soil have been eroded over time by wind and rain. Badlands often have a spectacular color display due to the different minerals in the rocks that were eroded. The Arizona badlands run from the Eastern end of the Grand Canyon all the way to the Four Corners area – the place where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet. The Petrified Forest National Park preserves a portion of these badlands within the park boundaries. As we drove through the Northern side of the park, we encountered many overlooks that allowed us to view the badlands from many different angles.
At one of the overlooks, we also got to visit the Painted Desert Inn – a historic landmark built in the 1930s from petrified wood. The inn was built by men of the Civilian Conservation Corps – the relief program that Franklin D. Roosevelt created to provide employment for unmarried men after the Great Depression. The inn was built along the historic Route 66 (this is before the I-40 existed) and operated until the 1960s. The place is frozen in time, and walking through the inn was like being in a time machine. We even peeked into the guest rooms. Each was just big enough for a sink, a fireplace and a double bed. Too bad it doesn’t operate any more, because the guest rooms had a killer view into the badlands.
As we continued South, we stopped by a an ancient pueblo that had been inhabited between 1100 and 1300 AD. We marveled at the petroglyphs, one of which marked summer solstice. The petroglyph was placed on a rock such that at solstice, the sun light traveled through a crack in the rock next to it and the light beam touched the petroglyph between the hours of 8 and 9 am for a few days around solstice. Isn’t that amazing? This rudimentary calendar system allowed them to track the seasons and to know when to plant crops.
Even further South, we reached an area called Blue Mesa. Here, we were able to get out of the car and hike 1-mile loop that took us down into badland hills of blush bentonite clay and petrified wood. This was an unforgettable experience. Every photo we snapped was full of color, yet somehow the pictures don’t give the place enough credit. We got to get up close and personal with some giant logs of petrified wood. Petrified wood literally means wood turned into stone (from the Greek word petro, meaning rock or stone. I feel like the Greek guy from My Big Fat Greek Wedding as I say this). The petrification process occurs underground, when wood becomes buried under sediment or volcanic ash. The wood does not decompose quickly when it’s buried due to the lack of oxygen. In the meantime, mineral-laden water then flows through the covering material and deposits minerals in the wood. As parts of the wood decay, the minerals that are left turn into stone. This way, the wood preserves its shape even though its composition is mostly rock. The result is quite striking. It’s common to see many different colors in petrified wood, depending on the minerals that were deposited by the water. It’s fascinating to see in person.
On our way out of the park, we stopped by the Southern visitor center to hike a short trail to the biggest petrified wood in the park. Then, it was on the Phoenix to catch our flight to LA.
The route from the national park to Phoenix was quite scenic. At firsts the landscape was flat with low vegetation; we gradually started climbing into the Apache – Sitgreaves national forest, and the trees returned. We even saw patches of snow on the ground. When we finally got on the other side of the mountain, we saw the landscape that Arizona is known for – the Saguaro cactus. There were many of them littering the southern slope, and the blooming yellow wildflowers made for a beautiful landscape.
The sights we’ve seen over the last few days have been absolutely magnificent. We drove through such remote areas that we felt like we’d been traveling for months, not days. We also realized that there is so much more to see in the areas we visited than what was on our original itinerary. I am looking forward to more trips to this unbelievably beautiful part of the US.