In Pursuit of Wildness: Petrified Forest National Park

Apr 13, 2020 View Comments by

Petrified Forest National Park

I’m on historic US Route 66 heading east for a small village nestled next to the Rio Grande in New Mexico called La Joya. Each year, I make this journey across the wild west, past little communities and towns with interesting names: Newberry Springs, Oatman, Cool Springs, Valentine, Peach Springs, Twin Arrows, Two Guns. They sound like names from old Western movies. The map tells me that it’s about 1,100 miles from my home in Three Rivers, CA, to La Joya, but I rarely follow the straight lines.

Today, I am riding my 2019 Indian Springfield on its maiden voyage. It’s three weeks old and just broken in with barley 911 miles on the odometer. I love Western movies, and I’m especially fond of the line by Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove: “Ain’t nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country.” In Peach Springs, AZ, near Mile Marker 88, I stop to pay my respects to a fallen biker, Danny Cypert. The air is warm and the warm breeze pushes me toward Peach Springs. In the distance, a train with endless cars snakes across the prairie. This is a popular route for motorcyclists cruising Route 66.

Petrified Forest National Park is a perfect reason not to follow straight lines on a map. The park brochure tells me that this park is the only park in the national park system containing a section of historic Route 66. Petrified Forest stretches north and south between Interstate 40 and Highway 180. Whichever entrance you choose, stop by the visitors center to get oriented. The Painted Desert Visitor Center is located at Exit 311 off I-40 and provides excellent visitor information and a free 18-minute orientation film.

I barely travel 2 miles from the north entrance when I stop at the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, which once served as a respite for travelers along Route 66. A walk around the area will produce sweeping views that vanish hundreds of miles away. My bike is running flawlessly, and like a proud new parent I’m taking pictures, including selfies, at every overlook. An elderly man walks up and begins talking. “I used to ride motorcycles, including several Indians. You’ve got a beauty there.” As he walks away, he seems to have some extra bounce in his gait. The road between north and south is a mere 28 miles, so I stop at every attraction. I walk the Puerco Pueblo trail for a brief introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan people; around 1300, the pueblo may have been home to about 200 people. If you have the time, the Blue Forest Trail and the hikes to Billings Gap Overlook, Dead Wash Overlook, Devil’s Playground, and First Forest Point provide great opportunities for adventure.

Petrified Forest National Park landscapeContinuing the 28 miles toward the south entrance, I stop frequently at places like Newspaper Rock, Blue Mesa, Agate Bridge, Jasper Forest, and Crystal Forest for super pictures of the ancient petrified trees. Before leaving the park, be sure to visit the Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitor Center to view paleontological exhibits complete with skeleton displays of prehistoric animals. There are two worthwhile trails from the Rainbow Forest Museum: Long Logs (1.6-mile loop) offers one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the park, and Agate House Trail (2 miles roundtrip) leads you to a small pueblo occupied about 700 years ago.

Museum archeologists provide a glimpse into two geological formations, the Late Triassic Chinle Formation and the Mio-Pliocene Bidahochi Formation that occurred over 200 million years ago. As I ride my Indian motorcycle along these ancient 28 miles, I think how fortunate we are to have the Petrified Forest National Park preserve, protect, and explain such ancient wonders.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
— John Muir

Planning a Visit
Petrified Forest National Park, initially established as a national monument in 1906, became a national park on Dec. 9, 1962. It is one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the world. With a little planning, you can see petrified trees within the park that date back over 200 million years. The park is located in eastern Arizona and easily accessible off I-40.

To Do
Within Petrified Forest National Park there are excellent opportunities to explore: day hiking, ranger-led programs, visitors centers, museums, scenic drives, backpacking, wildlife and wildflower viewing, photography, picnicking, and horseback riding. Visit the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark (open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Backcountry camping is permitted within the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area. Permits are free and must be obtained in person at either the Painted Desert Visitor Center or Rainbow Forest Museum.

There are no campgrounds in the park; however, nearby Canyon de Chelly National Monument, El Morro National Monument, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park have campgrounds.

Hours
Petrified Forest National Park is open year-round except Dec. 25. Generally, hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Painted Desert Visitor Center and Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitor Center.

Fees
Entrance fees, good for seven days, are $15 per motorcycle, $20 per vehicle for a seven-day pass, and $10 per person or bicyclist. An annual pass is $30.

For more information or to purchase a pass, visit www.nps.gov/pefo.

 

 

 

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