Stopped at the exit to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, the ranger in the booth asked me how I liked my visit. I answered instantly. But all day long I had been thinking about what someone else had told me before my trip. They said the park is a waste of time and there’s nothing there to see. After three hours, I knew exactly what I thought.
I pulled off Arizona’s Interestate 40 at Exit 311 and right into the Petrified Forest National Park. What I had seen thus far on my drive gave me little reason to believe that the topography of the landscape or the scenery would change. It was an unforgiving desert filled with scrub brush, mesas, and endless miles of horizon.
I took the scenic drive north into the Painted Desert. My guidebook seemed to have set the itinerary for me, suggesting what I assumed to be all of the right stops. But the first one I made – Tiponi Point – was unschedule and it was goregous. I threw the book in the back seat, knowing it’d be best if I did it on my own.
The road arched to the west and back south. And I hit most every stop along it. I was impressed by everything I saw; the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, Pintado Point (top), and the hsitoric Route 66 stop were all fantastic. I was immediately impressed and wondering if my friend had actually visited a different park than I was seeing.
That is when it dawned on me: I was in the Petrified Forest National Park and I had yet to see any petrified wood. Maybe this is what they meant. Maybe it was the lack of the park’s namesake that actually made it such a huge disappointment. And maybe these oh so impressive views were only inspiring because of the absolute nothing I had experienced for hundreds of interstate miles ever since turning right at Albuquerque.
I crossed back over the interstate and a Sante Fe Railway line, both cutting through the center of the park. Scrub grass covered the landscape and it was as boring of a drive as I had experienced since leaving my hotel in Gallup, New Mexico. My gut clenched at the thought of only seeing more of the same as I drove south.
In an attempt to eliminate the boredom, I pulled over at the first opportunity – the Puerco Pueblo pullout. In the middle of the short loop trail is the excavated remains of an ancestral Puebloan village abandoned in the mid-14th century. It wasn’t as grand as the ruins I toured at Mesa Verde National Park, but still amazing amongst all of the boredom. The same could be said for the few etched petroglyphs on a spur trail.
Shrugging at what I had seen, trying to feel impressed, I climbed back into my car and continued south. I took the very next pulloff, hoping to find anything – anything at all – that could make me happy. My guidebook, retrieved from the back seat, said the Newspaper Rock was quite possibly the most impressive location in the national park.
Yet, the supposedly impressive site was only visible through telescopes at a viewing platform.
I glanced around, taking in the view, hoping something would jump out and command my attention. Nothing did, so I stuck an eyeball on the end of the telescope. It was a bright blur. I repositioned it and then it all came into focus.
What I was looking at through the telescope was truly impressive. The rocks were covered with more than 600 petroglyphs and it was amazing. I had never seen anything like it before.
My attention was snapped back to reality by the arrival of another car. I took this as my cue to leave. I had my time to admire the petroglyphs on my own and felt it only fair I offered the same opportunity to the next visitor.
I found the Blue Mesa loop drive not to be quite as impressive as the Newspaper Rock, but stunning in its own way. The ever-eroding mesa continually offers a new view from any of the pullouts or the trail below. I wanted to hike it – the trail begged to be hiked – but I was still under the weather from a cold that had set in two days previous. So I instead took the time to pause at each of the vantage points and appreciate what would never look the same on a future visit – a grand collection of badlands.
With new faith in my guidebook, I skipped the next three stops. It suggested the reader do so – and since they were crowded I did not argue – and instead continue on to the Long Logs and Agate House trailhead. I knew this would be the motherload – a collection of petrified logs I had only seen sprinkled throughout the rest of the park – and so I sped on ahead.
My cold had me winded within a mile from the start of the flat, well-paved trail. But I was determined to continue on to see all of the Long Logs area. The Agate House, an ancestral Puebloan building reconstructed in the 1930s on a spur trail from Long Longs, would have to wait for another time. I knew I couldn’t do it without pushing myself beyond my limits. The petrified forest was a must, though.
The crumbling trail wound amongst the petrified logs, some of them criss crossing on top of each other. Others lined the trail, stretching for dozens of feet and only separated by an occasionally naturally-created crack. If the weather had been warmer and my cold not present, I could have spent hours admiring the collection; they all deserved more time than I could presently offer.
The road had come to an end at the Rainbow Forest Museum and visitor center. Courtesy my guidebook, I knew there was a petrified tree there ten feet in diameter at the base. In the grand scheme of things, this is as impressive to me as the world’s largest ball of twine. It is really quite meaningless and unimportant. But I had to see it anyway.
A short trail of just under a half mile brought me to it. Well, it took me right past. Old Faithful – the large stone log – was so impressive that I almost walked right on by it. In truth, I did walk right by it, but caught myself in enough time to turn around and snap a photo of it to prove I had been there and done that.
And so I left the Petrified Forest National Park, stopping at the ranger station. Did I have a good time? “Yes, it was excellent,” I told the ranger, truthfully. The park had similar features to other parks I have visited, like the Badlands of South Dakota or Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, but it had so many unique features. And it was those – the Newspaper Rock, the Long Logs, and the Blue Mesa – that made it such a special visit.