on April 1, 2010
Petrified Forest is really two parks in one, which explains why it’s one of only two National Parks to be bisected by an interstate (nearly urban Cuyahoga Valley NP is the other). We took the exit ramp at noon on a beautiful Sunday afternoon for a look at the Painted Desert, the colorful badlands that stretch from east of the Grand Canyon and end here, northeast of Holbrook, AZ. The Desert is the attraction at the northern end of the park, which is only accessed via Exit 311 on I-40. This takes you first to the Painted Desert Visitor Center, an unusual arrangement that allows you to stop and shop without paying to enter the park. Going any further into the park requires you to pass the entrance station, and after paying our fees we headed another half mile to the first scenic turnout at Tiponi Point.From here, you look north out over the colorful desert badlands. The Painted Desert is actually part of the Chinle formation, which stretches from Nevada to Oklahoma, and in this region is both ancient layered seabed and former pine forest. The color is due to the presence of iron and manganese in the silica, which produces shades that range from interesting to spectacular. Even though we were there for the direct light of noon, the worst time of day, it was still an amazing sight. The size and structure of the small buttes and hills were nearly identical to the smaller features in South Dakota’s Badlands, but where those rocks were uniformly light in color, these shared a common set of bands of reds, pinks, greys, and even an occasional blue, all topped off by a white layer that often looked a like a scoop of ice cream atop some surrealistic cone. The park road curves gradually circles back to the south, and passes under the freeway about a mile and a half west of Exit 311. However, there’s no access to I-40, and the road continues south for another 30 miles before it reaches the park’s southern edge at US-180, 20 miles southeast of Holbrook. The section north of the interstate is about six miles long, and features six other overlooks into the desert, as well as the Painted Desert Inn. This landmark was one of many western facilities undermined by the death of Route 66, but is now open as a museum following a near-death experience and a recent renovation. On our way west, we got as far as Tawa Point, the second scenic turnout, before deciding to save our sightseeing time for Sunset Crater and sunset at the Grand Canyon. We only pulled away having promised to make the most of our week-long park admission by stopping on our way home, this time beginning at the south entrance to view the Petrified Forest, and then completing the trip back to I-40 along the entirety of the park road.US-180 separates from I-40 just west of Holbrook, and the ominous sign at the other edge of town announces that the highway is neither patrolled nor plowed in poor weather. In addition to that cheery bit of news, this route to the park also gives you the Route 66 experience you miss by getting off the interstate in the midst of the park. Rock shops, tourist traps, drive-ins—some closed, some still open—get a little more frequent as you approach the turn north into Petrified Forest. Tacky? Quaint? Americana? I found myself scanning the horizon for any and all signs of the establishments that lined the way west for decades, many of which are crumbling back into the desert. We didn’t stop at any of these along US 180, but it was definitely a more interesting road than I-40.With the prospect of 12 more hours of driving between us and Amarillo, our time in the park was brief. We bypassed the Rainbow Forest Museum just inside the boundary, along with several of the easily accessible trails. The ranger had recommended the Crystal Forest and the Long Logs sites as the best places to see the stone trees. We headed directly to the former, where a short trail winds through one of the many areas where these stone trunks lie in sections on the ground, looking like dark brown versions of the columns from Greek or Roman temples. Up close, you notice that the faces are tremendously beautiful, and become fantastic when polished, looking like the view in some exceptional kaleidoscope. They’re really not trees at all, but stone casts of trees: after falling over in a mineral-rich sea, the water that infiltrated each plant cell brought with it silica that later turned to quartz. Over time, the organic material decayed, leaving behind the quartz in a perfect cast of the plant that originally absorbed those waters. Vandals and thieves have removed some of the park’s best specimens: if you’re wondering why you see no crystals in the Crystal Forest, that’s why. (How much disappears annually? Perhaps as much as 12 tons.)The Painted Desert isn’t quite as obvious here in the southern section of the park, with the exception of a few stretches. Five miles north of Crystal Forest, the Chinle formation crosses the road, which weaves among the very aptly named Teepees, triangular cones eroded out of the buttes that are colorful enough to look like bomb pops in stone. The park road winds 28 miles north, crossing the railroad, ducking under the interstate, and then looping back around to the highway. This is where the Fred Harvey store can be found, as well as a smaller visitor center with a good bookstore, and a snack shop.If you’re thinking of coming here as part of your Grand Canyon trip, I’d suggest doing it first. Our second experience at Petrified Forest suffered from grandeur fatigue: the Painted Desert looked a lot more impressive before we’d spent three days atop and inside the Canyon.
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