The Petrified Forest and the Wilderness Within

The term “wilderness” to me typically evoked images of dense forest growth, tall conifers, meandering rivers, and abundance of wildlife. I had not associated wilderness with mounds of petrified wood chips, a dried up wash, and a maze of peculiar rock formations looking as if they has been painted every shade of orange and pink. This was my experience in the Wilderness Area of the Petrified Forest National Park, and although it was not what I had expected, it topped my list of favorite experiences in nature.

My first order of business when I arrived at the park was securing a wilderness permit. Once I was able to do that, I had nearly a full day ahead of me to see the sites of the park before descending into the Wilderness Area. With my Star Wars soundtrack playing, to accompany the otherworld environment, I drove from one site to another, taking in the traditional tourist features of the park.

First, I walked the Giant Logs Interpretive Trail behind the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center. A small pathway meandered around many large pieces of petrified wood in the beating wind. The main feature was the largest piece of intact petrified trunk called “Old Faithful” named by Jane Mather, wife of the National Park Service’s first director Stephen Mather. She thought this piece of petrified wood was to the Petrified Forest National Park as the Old Faithful geyser was to Yellowstone. I’ve never been to Yellowstone, but surely it’s Old Faithful surpases this one in beauty and grandeur. I discovered throughout my exploring of the park that there are many things far more intriguing than this piece of petrified wood.

“Old Faithful”

Petrified wood in and of itself is interesting though, and the park has a fascinating history. Through the visitor center information and interpretive trails, I learned that it is believed that Arizona and Panama used to be connected and were a dense jungle. Then a enormous sudden flood separated the land mass and took out the entire forest. The trees were buried under mineral rich sediment and volcanic ash where they were protected and crystallized. As the rock and land eroded over time, the petrified wood  became exposed. I found two things very fascinating about this. First, I’ve been to the jungles of Panama, and it’s astounding to think that this land was shared with Panama. The pictographs even showed dinosaurs roaming the landscape- how cool. Secondly, this massive and immediate flood is totally accounted for in the book of Genesis in the Bible. It’s what we refer to as Noah’s flood. This was the first time I’d heard of a giant flood in a National Park, but throughout the course of the trip I’m going to encounter in park after park a massive flood being presented as the cause and formation of many things.

My exploration of the park took me across from the visitor center to Long Logs loop- a very “Star Wars-esque” trail. It’s true that I ran part of the trail, pretending I was wielding a lightsaber and being chased by an inquisitor, and I did try and imagine an Imperial ship descending upon me. No one else was out there, so I could indulge in my imagination.

Long Logs Loop

Connected to the Long Logs loop was a short trail leading to the Agate House- a log cabin made of petrified wood. The natives that lived in this land would build shelters out of the petrified forest wood. The National Park Service reconstructed one of such shelters. Here I dropped the Star Wars pretending and imagined what it would be like long ago to call this place home, gazing out the window of my petrified house into the endless expanse of wispy grass and petrified wood with a sky so large and expansive. It was a quiet and desolate world. I love how the National Parks are not only rich in beauty but also in history. When I read something in the parks about how the inhabitants once lived, I like to do more than simply collect that knowledge. I like to imagine and picture that existence for myself.

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Agate House

Back in my car I drove deeper into the park and stopped to hike the short Blue Mesa loop. Here rock formations were the main attraction. They appeared as giant colorful mounds composed of grey, blue, purple, and green mudstone. The path descended and slithered around these rock formations making the tourist seem very punitive in relation.

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Blue Mesa Loop

From here I proceeded to the remains of old Route 66 where an abandoned vehicle pays tribute to the once roadway. I then stopped at Pintado Point overlook where I could look down into the canyon of the wilderness area. Here the colors were rich red and pink. Apart from the wilderness area I was looking into, most of the park was on largely  flat and level ground and the wind was remarkably strong and ever present. Apart from the dark color of the petrified wood, both the grass and the rock formations, although full of color, were all sort of pale. This dull pale sort of filter covers my memory. But here, looking into the wilderness area, things were different. A diverse landscape of warm color invited me in. It was time!

View of Wilderness Area from Pintado Point

I drove to the Painted Desert Inn, which is no longer in service, but is an adobe style building preserved as a national landmark. Here I would leave my car and descend into the wilderness. In the parking lot I had dinner which consisted of beef jerky, almonds, an apple, and a Cliff bar. I then packed my backpack for the backcountry. I document exactly what I packed- Grand Trunk pillow, lightweight sleeping bag, Kelty, 2 flashlights, camera, phone, e-trek 10 gps, long underwear, contacts, glasses, miniature toothbrush, 3 liters of water, electrolyte gummies, and a Cliff Bar. There was a nice bathroom accessible from the outside at the Painted Desert Inn. I took advantage of it and made sure I brushed my teeth really well, since I wouldn’t have quite the opportunity in the wild.

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Agate House

I then began my descent from the plateau on foot on a small steep path that rounded some switchbacks and then dumped me into the canyon to explore. I felt so small, and so free. I was truly ecstatic. The beauty of it all was astounding, the freedom–incredible, and the possibilities for exploration–inspiring. I had never felt so free in my life. The girl who issued me the permit told me there was only one other permit she had issued that day, so I knew I was largely alone, that this whole endless canyon was my own world to explore. I had plugged into my etrek gps the coordinates for the Onyx bridge, where it was suggested I camp. As I was following my gps, the route took me past the camp of the beholders of the one other wilderness pass. They had found an astounding place to set up camp. The sun was setting between two rock formations and their tent was situated perfectly in front of the majestic scene

Soccer Mom’s Camp

“Oh, guys. It looks like we have another hiker.” I was spotted. The soccer-mom type of a gal jubilantly approached me. She reached out to shake my hand. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Josh.”

“Josh is here, kids,” she turned back to announce to her family.

This was very peculiar. I knew her kids had no clue who I was. They were unfazed.

“You found a great place to set up camp,” I said, even though I looked down at my gps and they were not a mile from the entrance. They were not following the proximity rules. I am a stickler for rules.

“You are welcome to camp with us,” she invited.

“Thanks, but I’m actually looking for this bridge. I pulled out the paper my crush in the visitor center had given me. It showed a small picture of the petrified wood bridge.

“Josh is going to a bridge, kids!” She exclaimed back to her family.

I didn’t understand her referencing me by name to her kids who hadn’t even met me. It was very odd. I also found it peculiar she would invite me to camp with her family without knowing anything about me except for my name.

“You want to camp with us?” She invited me again.

“No thanks. I’m going to find this bridge,” I politely responded.

“Can I take a picture of you?” I am not accustomed to strangers wanting to take my picture, but I didn’t see there being any problem with this. So, she took two pictures of me with her smartphone and thanked me. I was on my way. I was baffled, and I still am to this day. She seemed completely sober and with it, yet her actions were so strange, and I wonder why she wanted a picture of me.

I also wonder what her husband was thinking. I assume that’s who the man setting up camp with the kids was. He said nothing and was just as unfazed as the children. If I had a wife and she was taking pictures of a stranger and inviting him to camp with us, I might have a bit of a problem with that.

However, I carried on. Most of my hike was at an even lower level, as I trekked through the ravine of a wide wash. I had heard on the radio in the morning, while approaching the park, that there was a 0% chance of rain, so I figured I’d be safe in the wash. At times the wash was as deep as my height, other times a little bit taller or shorter. It felt like I was on some large avenue leading to somewhere, but really I was headed nowhere, not even the Onyx Bridge, because I couldn’t find it. The sun was setting and my gps was sending me around in circles. It was clear that the Onyx Bridge was simply not there. Perhaps it had been washed away or buried when water did flow through this area.

At 8:00p.m. I set up Kelty within the wash on a sand bar jutting off at one side. The sand was very soft like that of a beach, and I knew this would be a great place to camp since I would not have much to sleep on except the bottom of my tent and a thin sleeping bag.

I set my tent up to face a very large rock formation, almost appearing as a mountain by which the moon appeared. It was stunningly beautiful, but as much as I tried to photograph it, I simply could not capture the scene. The desert air was cooling off very fast, so I changed into my long underwear. I ate my electrolyte gummies, drank some water, and gave into complete relaxation.  I opened my tent door flap, rested my head against my pillow in my tent, buried my feet in the sand just outside my tent, and took in the incredible view before me. I felt at peace and had no concerns. Everything I needed was with me and nothing extra. It was a special moment- one of those extremely rare moments that you know are gifts. I looked at the stars, breathed the cool desert air, and drifted to sleep. 

My Camp

I slept very well next to the bright glow of the moon, and I woke up with the warm sun. It was an incredible feeling to wake up in a world of my own, where I was free to go anywhere. Although the possibilities were endless, I felt determined in the morning to find the Onyx Bridge. After an hour of searching, I still had no luck. I did however have a great and rather thrilling time climbing to the top of a giant mound sticking up in the desert. The views from atop were amazing, and I could see for miles around in all directions. The bad part was, I had not taken into account how I would come down from this thing. I searched all perimeters of this island. No route looked easy. Every possible route looked like it would involve a falling component. It was rather scary, but I chose a route. I slide down on sharp jagged pieces of petrified wood, surfing my way down the crystals. My heart was rapidly beating in exhilaration and fear. This would be the first of many times in this adventure I would climb up somewhere high not knowing how to get down. This time I descended unscathed. I wouldn’t be so lucky next time.

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Petrified Forest

Another mistake I made was that I had not marked a waypoint of where I began my descent from the Painted Desert Inn into the canyon the day before. I had to rely on pure instinct to guide me back. I did though, not a problem. After a few miles of hiking, I could see the Painted Desert Inn way up on the edge of of the canyon rim. It was a relief.

Back on the high ground of the park, I turned in my wilderness permit at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, said goodbye to the lovely Jaquacia who had issued me the permit, and I considered how, although brief, this had been perhaps my favorite experience in nature thus far. The Wilderness Area of the Petrified Forest National Park definitely rests towards the top of my list.

In my car I programed my gps to take me to the next leg of my adventure into the Navajo Nation.

Check the next entry “The Wonder of Horseshoe Bend here:

Read the previous entry “National Park Girl Steal My Heart,” here:

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