Desert Hiking in AZ

There are times for getting up and getting going early on vacation (any Disney trip, when there is a train to catch or a camp site to vulture, summer hiking and biking) but Sunday was not one of those times. We were up pretty early (as usual) and wandered down to the fairly decent (omelettes and palatable bagels) Sleep Inn breakfast around 7:15, but then there was football. NBC Sports was actually among the dozens of channels offered, so Maureen got to watch Spurs play while I did my core exercise routine and loaded the minivan. After a small second breakfast, we hit the road around 10:30.

We wanted to top up the gas tank, since we were headed into less populated areas, but we also wanted to clean off the windshield (necessary, ick, even though it’s only March!). The first two gas stations we visited had no fluid in their window cleaning vats, so they did not earn our business. At the second one, a presumably local gentleman told us that the Pronto gas station, just a couple blocks away, consistently had window liquid, so we headed there and were rewarded with the lowest price in town AND window cleaner. Note to gas stations–people do care about (and apparently notice) these things!

There’s not much to say about the drive, except that there were many large trucks. And many trains (though at least we weren’t sharing space with them). We have been listening to a mystery by Tana French (thank you Pueblo library) and really enjoying it, though I’m not sure we’ll manage to get through all 19(!) discs before the trip is over. 

Our plan for the day was to check out Petrified Forest National Park and do some “light” hiking. I had been there before, but given that it was on a family vacation decades ago…

Even with our late start, we arrived at the park around 11, since we “gained” an hour due to Arizona’s rejection of daylight savings time. The National Park staffer working the desk at the visitor center was very excited to find people who wanted to hike, so she gave us details and handouts on three possible “off the beaten path” excursions. We watched the 18-minute Park film for the requisite historical overview and to clarify our priorities.

The Park is traversed by 28-mile road (it’s not one way, but you only travel one way), so a little planning is in order. The only picnic areas are near the beginning and the end, and there are few restrooms. The first couple of stops along the road are overlooks. The scenery, which they call the Painted Desert, is spectacular.

The second major stop (after the Visitor Center) is the old Painted Desert Inn. Originally a real Inn (called the Stone Tree House) constructed of petrified wood and stone, it was rebuilt and adobe-ized by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. The Pueblo Revival Style redesign was the work of prominent National Park Service architect Lyle Bennett. After World War II, it served as a restaurant run by the Fred Harvey Company, with some improvements made by designer/architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (about whom you’ll hear more later on this trip) and Hopi artist Fred Kabotie. The interior is now preserved and you can no longer get a milkshake. The murals and light fixtures are pretty cool.

Next up was lunch. From the cooler, at Chinde Point picnic area. Very familiar–just like 2015. I don’t really get tired of picnic lunches at National Parks.

We were anxious to get to some hiking spots, so we bypassed a few overlooks, including the Route 66 stop, to save a little time. We next paused at Puerco Pueblo, where there are remains of a large ancestral Puebloan complex, petroglyphs, and a beautifully reconstructed entrance station that is now an interpretive center using modern informal learning design.

Note the spiral around the corner from the foot. It is illuminated by a spike of light only during the period around the summer solstice.

It was getting pretty hot, but we didn’t feel we could skip Newspaper Rock, which has impressive petroglyphs scratched into the natural patina of the rock–some may be thousands of years old!

Finally, we arrived at the site of our “warm-up” hike (it was over 80 degrees out, so warming up seems ridiculous), Blue Mesa. This area is made up of bluish badlands. At this point I was thinking that this relatively small National Park has everything–elements of many of the great parks. And then we saw this Park’s real claim to fame.

The Blue Forest hike is along a paved path, but requires a steep descent down the mesa. You are rewarded with great views of the badlands, and lots of petrified wood.

Our appetites whetted, we moved on to the (unpaved and unmarked) hike at Jasper Forest. This area was once called “First Forest” as it was the collection of petrified wood that visitors arriving by train encountered first. In theory the hike follows the old tourist roadbed, but in reality you follow the footprints as best you can. It was hot, but the petrified wood was plentiful and amazing.

Really tired now, we headed for the Visitor Center at the southern end of the park. Neither of us had any bandwidth for the displays (even though there were some impressive dinosaur bones), so we used the facilities, got a snack from our stash, and called it a park visit.

If you’re headed for the Grand Canyon, or just find yourself in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is worth at least half a day. Bring food and water and sunscreen–and your camera.


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