Petrified Forest National Park

February 3-5, 2024.

Photo album

Overlooking the north side of the park

We began our tour of this remote park at the north entrance, off old Rte. 66. Petrified Forest National Park had been on my radar on a previous trip to Northern Arizona, but it was just too far off our route to add the stop. This time, I made sure to prioritize it.

I spoke with a ranger about some of the places I wanted to visit and they offered me three printed packets with route descriptions for three “off the beaten path” routes. I’d never seen anything like that at a national park! I was encouraged to explore off trail, so I gladly leapt at the chance. I noticed “Onyx Bridge” on my map and read a little bit about it online. It was one of the three routes in my pile of packets, so we decided to drive to the Painted Desert Inn to begin this hike.

Onyx Bridge

It was super windy, so we layered up. I packed ramen and tea. We walked down the switchbacks from the parking lot into a maze of painted hills below. Then, we alternated following the social trail when it was visible to following the National Park Service directions (complete with photos!) from checkpoint to checkpoint. I thought it was a fun game, like a scavenger hunt.

We arrived at a wide wash that had some water from recent rains. The ranger warned that it may not be passable. As we approached it more closely, we were able to pick a route that avoided the small stream and shiny mud, and soon we were on the other side.

Water in the desert

The social trail now a loose memory, we roughly skirted the hills to our left in search of the canyon that we’d take to find the Onyx Bridge. This landmark earned its name because it is a blackened piece of petrified wood that used to span a small depression, resembling a bridge, before it broke into pieces. I thought it would still be cool to see.

We scrambled up a small canyon and topped out at the view of Onyx Bridge. Turns out, it was worth the walk. On the way there we stopped to admire other pieces of petrified wood dotting the badlands. And on our route back we saw even more. Not satisfied with a simple out-and-back, we chose a more creative way to return to the wash crossing. There, we enjoyed views of the incredible painted hills and stumbled into slices of mica (?) that glinted in the sunlight.

Onyx Bridge

Pro tip for visiting the Petrified Forest: there is no campground in the park. But, just outside the south entrance there’s a rock shop called Crystal Forest Museum and Gifts. They have free dry camping: no toilets, water or amenities besides a place to park and a picnic table. But the price is right!

Blue Mesa

The next day, we drove into the park as soon as the gate opened at 8 am. We parked near the visitor center to use the bathroom, then went back to the van to make breakfast. It’s like our own portable cafe! As we were getting ready to go, a group of travelers popped by to ask questions about our van. They were on a long road trip from Ohio and loved talking vans with Aaron. We swapped van tours, then went on our way. Not before exchanging contact information and receiving an invite to stay with them if we happen to pass through Cleveland (and they happen to be home!)

We drove to the trailhead for the old Blue Forest trail and I began hiking according to the handout I’d gotten from the ranger. Aaron stayed at the van to fix our water filter. I wanted to paint, so I found a nice spot near the top of the hills that had a view and a nice example of a petrified log. It was lovely to spend so much time immersed in that environment, surrounded by colors and sparkles and textures. I continued along the route, following a well-worn path on the tops of the painted hills. This was the first place I was allowed (and encouraged) to walk on these features. What a unique experience.

It’s not just blue at Blue Mesa

After descending the trail on the backside, I joined the crowds on the other side and hiked up to the road, where Aaron waited for me in a pull-out.

Off the beaten path

While there are only a handful of developed trails in the park, off-trail hiking is allowed here. I spent my final day in the park wandering among the hills and through the washes without any particular destination in mind. Since my hikes are typically dictated by where Aaron can park and work for the day, I’ve gotten pretty flexible about planning where to go. It’s quite freeing to let the landscape dictate the route, deciding in the moment whether to go left or right, up or down, based on what’s in front of me. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

It looked so easy…

I found another spot to paint and struggled through another landscape. It’s fascinating how the geography that looks like it’s actually painted in watercolor is the most difficult (for me) to paint in watercolor. Maybe someday, I’ll figure it out.

Nonetheless, I had a quiet, restorative hike.

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