Serendipitously, one of my favourite podcasts* was doing a segment on US National Parks while I was driving south. I love that so many countries around the world have set aside part of their land as protected parks for public enjoyment, and I especially love it that the US is one of those countries. We have some freeging outstanding national parks, and I am lucky to live on the west side of the country, where most of those parks are located.
I had never visited Petrified Forest National Park, in northeastern Arizona. But I had a date with my dear friend Marlene, from In Search of it All, and it turns out she lives right next to this park. So on my way to visit her, I visited the park for the first time.
There were two places in the road where damage to the southbound lane made it undriveable, so random stoplights were placed in the middle of the desert. Then, with no view of any traffic anywhere, I was forced to stop and wait. It was sort of funny. But at least I was stopped and could safely aim and focus for photos!
Finally I arrived at the park. I pulled in to the first visitor center I found. I told them I wanted to camp and asked what I needed to do. The woman at the counter had me read a big list of disclaimers and sign a sheet acknowledging I knew what I was getting myself into. Then she gave me a permit to put on my dashboard and sent me on my way. “You need to be on the trail and hiking by 4:30,” she said. I assumed this was so I could get as far as I needed to get while still in daylight.
So the deal is, when you’re at Petrified Forest National Park, you can camp pretty much anywhere, but it has to be one mile from the parking area or more. So you have to backpack in, which is fine for me and I was prepared to do that. I drove to the designated parking area, which was beside a super cool building.
I parked, and got out of my vehicle, ready to fill my backpack with gear and get going. But when I opened the door, the wind was blowing so hard it nearly yanked the car door from my hands. I went to the hatchback to start packing, and I was being buffeted in every direction by the wind. It was crazy windy. It was so windy I stopped and thought about camping in the wind. Rather than pack up my backpack, I locked the car and went into the Painted Desert Inn to find a park ranger.
Inside, I found that the entire building is open to tourists to explore. It’s a beautiful and unique historic building open to the public, with a ranger inside who is happy to answer questions. I asked him, “The wind seems high here in the parking lot, on a bluff above the valley. I was hoping to camp down there. Will the wind be less when I get off this bluff?” He sighed and shook his head, “In my experience,” the ranger said, “it is just as windy down there as up here.” Now I realized the upper atmospheric winds that formed the lenticular clouds I had been watching from inside the Jeep were also winds at the surface.
The ranger looked up the weather on his phone. “It’s gusting to 37 miles an hour (59.5 km/h) right now, but it should drop off to 30 in a couple of hours.” He kept poking new instructions into his phone. “And gusts to 20 miles an hour by 11 pm, and down to 14 miles an hour by 1 am.” Yuck. Also, the whole reason I wanted to camp here is because it is a designated protected dark sky park – meaning there is no light pollution and now no new light pollution is allowed – but there were increasing clouds. Clouds mean no stars no matter if you’re in a dark sky park or not. I decided right then not to camp and to get a hotel in the closest town instead.
I thanked the ranger for his time. He was closing for the day, and had to take down the flag, and asked me for help folding the flag. I’m not sure about your country’s rules, but in the US, the flag is not supposed to touch the ground. That makes it hard to fold, and I totally understood that and was happy to help him out.
Since I wasn’t camping, I didn’t need to be hiking by 4:30. I took the extra time just to explore the park instead, on my way to Holbrook, the closest town with a hotel.
Much of the park has striated hills that remind me very much of the Painted Hills of central Oregon.
About the time I began asking myself, “Now wait a minute. If this place is called ‘petrified forest,’ where is the petrified forest?” the forest revealed itself. There are so many petrified logs around here, it’s kind of hard to describe it properly.
For whatever reason, the logs all seemed to be huge, and they were all broken into pieces and looked like they had been chainsawed into segments and ready to take home as firewood. They weren’t cut though, just broken into pieces. The colours of the wood were captivating. I loved getting right up close and looking at the patterns and rings of stone that used to be wood.
Finally, I was reaching the far edge of the park as the sun was setting. I kept turning around in my seat to see the remarkable views behind me as I drove toward the setting sun. I did pull over a couple times to get a decent shot.
I turned onto the highway and made the quick drive to the town of Holbrook, Arizona, where I found a place with a room for me to rent.
Can you believe the last THREE posts were just for one day? What a jam-packed adventure day! Stay tuned because in the morning I went to see Marlene and then finished my drive to Gilbert, Arizona to meet up with family.
*The podcast is Stuff You Should Know, if you’re curious. I’ve been listening to them since 2012-ish, and they do every topic under the sun: trapeze artists, the Trail of Tears, phantom limbs, solar wind, dreadlocks, crossbows, ASMR, you get the picture.