Heading deep into Arizona now, we traveled highway 40 past the turn off to the Great Meteor Crater (that we’d visited the day before) and finding ourselves passing another ‘ghost town’, which was obviously an old abandoned tourist attraction, Jim and I took another opportunity for some photography, while again, the girls elected to stay in the car!
Following highway 40 beyond Holbrook took us to the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert. There is only one road through the national park with a visitors centre at both entrances. It’s always worth a stop at the visitors centres because the rangers have very good advice on which trails to head for depending on your time scale, how busy the park is and what you want to see. They’ll give you trail maps and there’s also information available about the park and its history etc.
The layers of colour in the desert which give it its ‘painted’ name come from the varying mineral content in the sandstone and mud layers as they were laid down and are dependent on the rate at which they were laid down. The red, orange and pick colours seen in the north of the park are formed from oxides of iron and hematite deposited slowly over longer periods of time. The more southern end of the park show blue, gray and lavender shades due the rapid depositing of sediments during events such as flooding.
We started at the north entrance which led straight into some pretty amazing viewing areas which gave vast views of the desert, with its hues of rich browns, reds and creams. The desert stretches as far as the eye can see with mesa and buttes dotted with broken up trunks of petrified wood and the odd clump of low growing vegetation.
Our first stop was the Puerco Pueblo trail, a short ½ km circle on a paved path to see the remains of a one hundred room pueblo which was lived in by the ancestral Puebloan people some 600 years ago. The trail also offers a view of some ancient petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are where the surface of a rock is pecked off to form an image exposing the lighter coloured rock below. Petroglyphs tend to last longer than rock paintings which are called pictographs.
Just a little further down the road was Newspaper Rock, a site with over 650 petroglyphs which were created by the ancient Puebloans who lived along the Puerco River between 650 and 2,000 years ago. The huge number of petroglyphs across several rocks at this site mark it as an extremely significant site to the ancient peoples.
Venturing deeper into the park brought us to the Blue Mesa trail, a 1.6km loop dropping down a steep start into the badland*.hills of bluish bentonite clay and dotted all over with petrified wood. The trail was a mix of paved and gravel and was easy to follow with our girls all taking it at their own paces and Jim and I stopping where and when we liked for photo opportunities. This trail really gave you a feel of being deep in the desert landscape. One major bonus was that the painted desert was far from crowded. We’re not good with hordes of people and here we had the place almost to ourselves.
Next up was a very short stroll to Agate Bridge where an ancient tree had fallen and after centuries of erosion (caused by flood waters scouring out a gully beneath the log) had left the 110 foot or 34 metre petrified tree trunk suspended across the gully. The log, which, since petrified, was harder then the land beneath it, resisted the erosion to form the natural bridge you can see today. For obvious reasons, access to the log bridge itself was prohibited and it could be viewed from a little distance away.
What turned out to be our last trail stop, due to an ever increasingly ominous sky bearing down on us, was the beautifully named Crystal Forest trail. This took us on a 1.2km walk through an area with large concentrations of petrified wood that sported stunning colours caused the by crystals in the wood. Unfortunately, as we progressed round this trail, the sky continued to darken until we decided we had best hurry back to our car before the weather broke on us.
As we headed out of the park (by-passing the Long Logs and Giant Logs trails that we had intended to visit) the weather caught up on us and we found ourselves driving back to our motel in Holbrook in a major blizzard, but feeling pleased with ourselves that we’d made the right decision to leave the Petrified Forest National Park when we did!
As an aside, before we visited the park, I looked on some forums for advice and more information about the area. Some people had written that they’d decided not to visit the park because they thought their children would be bored there and they’d heard from other people that it wasn’t that interesting. I beg to differ. We all found it incredibly interesting. The girls loved the trails, they loved finding out about the petrified wood, about the ancient Puebloans and seeing the glorious painted desert landscape simply isn’t to be missed!
* What exactly are badlands? These are areas of the most beautiful examples where weather and water have eroded the landscape to form some of the most amazing natural formations in the world.