Sunday, June 21, 2009

Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest

My second weekend in Arizona, I was on my own since my hiking partner and his girlfriend were purchasing their first home. We had discussed earlier the possibility of going to the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest National Park, but since it was the day after devouring the Big Unit at Cooperstown, we were unsure of how we would be feeling the next day and decided to take it easy (taking it easy meaning a 3 mile round-trip hike up a mountain, then taking the "ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK" trail to the summit of Pass Mountain in Mesa, Arizona. So, I made my first of several solo hikes into what was for me, one of the most bizarre landscapes I have ever been in.

The Painted Desert is a large area of barren badlands situated in the eastern part of Arizona, not too far from the New Mexico border. Driving east on I-40 toward Winslow and Holbrook, the landscape is flat rolling grasslands. Along the way is the occasional outcropping of red rock, Meteor Crater (I wanted to go, but it is privately owned and you can't even hike into the bottom of the thing which is ridiculous to me), and billboard after billboard advertising fossils and petrified wood for sale. When you finally pass through the whistle-stop town of Winslow (and I did not stand on a corner there) that you are getting close. You finally enter nearby Holbrook, turning south and then north, that you begin to enter the dry hills of the southern Painted Dessert where the Petrified Forest lays.

Long before you reach the visitors' centre in the southern end of the park you start catching glimpses of an eerie landscape. First, you descend into it. The bright light bleaching out all colour at first, but once your eyes become adjusted, bands of colour: reds, bright whites, blacks and varying hues of pink and grey that all combine into a fantastic display of colour and geological tale telling.

Arriving at the visitors' centre, is your first trail at the Rainbow Forest. This easy trail, meandering over sparse grass covered hill gets you up close to large petrified logs of conifer trees that once covered the landscape millions of years ago. Upon close inspection, you can even see quartz crystals and amethyst that formed over time.

Completing this trail, I continued further north and was in shock. Where were the trails? I finally came upon the next trail at the Crystal Forest, another long meandering trail that takes you past the petrified remains. Not that I wasn't impressed, but I was hoping for something more than the few trails offered so far. However, the next trail at Blue Mesa, three miles off of the main road running northward through the park offered a little more challenge and a completely different landscape. Previously, where the landscape was more rolling hills, here the trail took you into badlands, which I can not really describe adequately in words. Its like walking on the moon. There were far less people on this trail, which to me, was more like it! Walking down through the deep gorges through the hoodoos, it at first looked like someone just spread out bark mulch all over the ground. Out of curiosity, I cautiously picked up a piece (the National Park is very protective of the petrified wood and they do have a checkpoint where they check out your car to make sure that you are not taking anything I did not want to give the wrong impression to the passer-by), and much to my amusement what I had thought was bark mulch was actually a chip of petrified wood...petrified mulch.

Once I completed the trail, I continued north to Pueblo Puerco, the ruins of a small Native American settlement overlooking a nice canyon. Etched in the rock, just below the rim were a series of pictographs, still visible. Very Very cool to see!

Well, it was here that the answer to the big mystery of, "Where are all the trails here?" was finally answered by a Park Ranger...there aren't it turns out, as long as there is not a sign stating that one cannot walk through a particular area, you can simply pull your car over and walk off. Now, if you were to do this in our neck of the woods (literally) there are two possible outcomes: 1) You'd be lynched, 2) you would get lost and search and rescue would come and try to find you, and if you are not dead, you will be responsible for paying for the bill. So, I decided to make a date with the badlands I had passed earlier.

Let me tell you, setting foot out onto the parched clay surface of the badlands and leaving the only visible foot-prints is an odd, kind of nauseating but great experience. The Benonite clay getting compacted under your shoes, the total sense of being alone...almost spiritual. Once I was far out enough to no longer see my car hiding behind a hoodoo, I decided it was time to pack it in and call it a day. Upon arrival back to the car I saw three ravens circling it. I'm pretty sure that is an ominous portent...but I made it home safely.

Just a few tips: Bring water! Enough for you to complete your hike and then some. WHEN YOU ARE HALF-WAY THROUGH YOUR WATER YOU ARE HALF-WAY THROUGH YOUR HIKE. Also bring plenty of sun-screen so you don't fry yourself like I did.

For more information on the Painted Desert and the Petrified National Forest, please visit Petrified Forest National Park.

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