The moon, just past full, is already up as I lay down to cowboy camp in the midst of this 200 million year old “forest.” Trees are strewn about me, casting moonlight shadows. These plentiful trees are made of rock, not wood, which may explain the silence of this place. I literally do not hear a single sound, except the to and fro of my own breathing. I am several miles off-road in the Petrified Forest Wilderness in the Painted Desert of northern Arizona. I arrived mid-afternoon and simply asked for a free wilderness camping permit to explore this place. There are no trails in this Wilderness. You walk down a short path into the badlands and then travel wherever whim and interest take you. This is, without a doubt, the quietest night I have ever spent in my life.
When I wake in the morning, the breeze brings me the faint sound of truck traffic on distant I-40, reassuring me life goes on somewhere in the Universe. I have traveled the I-40 Interstate many times on trips between Colorado and Arizona, and I have seen the sign for the Petrified Forest National Park. This is the first time I have stopped to take in this remarkable place.
This National Park is growing. In 2004, Congress authorized an 100% expansion of the Park boundaries. The Park now consists of 50,000 acres of buttes, mesas, and badlands. There are no paved roads in most of the Park, although a 28-mile paved road leads the visitor to a number of outstanding overlooks and short trails to get you closer to the story of the Park. The persistent visitor, willing to walk into the back country, is rewarded with natural and cultural experiences. Humans have occupied the Park lands for over 13,000 years and evidence can be found of their presence, including ancient villages, pottery, stone and bone tools, and phenomenal rock art scattered throughout the Park. The main attraction, of course, is petrified wood and it is found nearly everywhere you look.
Massive amounts of petrified wood has been illegally removed from the Park in the past, and stopping this theft has been the primary narrative and mission of the Park staff. Things are changing now, according to Park Superintendent, Brad Traver. The emphasis now is on the natural and cultural bounty the Park has to offer. In particular, the Park is a world-class scientific laboratory for the study of fossils from the end of the Triassic Period, over 200 millions years ago. Recent additions to Park property have led to the discovery of more fossil layers that add to our understanding of this ancient lake environment.
There really is no reason to take petrified wood from the Park. Rock shops abound in the local area, and purchasing a piece of petrified wood there, collected on nearby private land outside the Park boundary, is inexpensive and goes a long way toward supporting the local economy.
The Park is basically open 8 to 5 every day except Christmas, with more extended hours in the summer. There is no lodging in the park, although Holbrook, Arizona is nearby. There is a restaurant near the Visitor Center. But, in my view, the best way to experience this park is to put your backpack on and walk into it. Be sure to take plenty of water with you. There are few, if any, water sources in the back country. I visited a couple weeks after a huge rainstorm had passed over the area, and there was still water and plenty of mud in the washes. This is probably not a good place to be if rain is imminent, but that happens rarely.