Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest

As another diversion enroute to the Gem and Mineral show in Tucson, I love it that these two natural wonders are right next to each other and comprise a single National Park served by a 28 mile main road.

The Park’s north entrance, which leads first into the Painted Desert, is off exit 311 of I-40 about 40 miles west of the New Mexico border and 24 miles east of the town of Holbrook, Arizona. The road begins by heading north through the Painted Desert for a few miles before looping south beneath I-40 for an additional 20 miles, mostly through the Petrified Forest before ending at Arizona Route 180 about 19 miles east of Holbrook.

Considering my multiple hobbies of mineralogy, photography, and hiking, this is about as good as it gets. The Painted Desert, which comprises the north part of the park, is particularly conducive to photography just about any time of day. Except for its clay "teepee caps" the Painted Desert is carved from sandstone where colors determined mostly by carbon content range from white to various shades of gray and brown, as well as red where iron oxide is present. The wonderful light greens at lower elevations are desert vegetation.

My main regret is becoming so preoccupied with photographing from viewpoints along the main Park Road that I missed walking the easy one-mile round trip Rim Trail extending between Tawa and Kachina points. It's the only opportunity for Painted Desert oriented walking except for a longer Wilderness trail recommended for overnight campers.
Other trails are less about the Painted Desert, more about the Petrified Forest. I walked two of them: the one mile Blue Mesa trail, and the Crystal Forest Trail. The Blue Mesa trail offered more geological diversity as well as a comfortable workout. What attracted me most about the Crystal Forest Trail was the ubiquity of colorful agatized wood everywhere along the trail.

Words on a warning sign posted on an information board at one of these trailheads impressed me. Its message was that a piece of petrified wood collected outside the National Park could be purchased for $2.00. A piece collected illegally inside the park costs $350 in conjunction with criminal charges of theft from the U.S. Government.

Not until 1962, did the area receive National Park stature. Evidence of human habitation, however, goes back 10,000 years. Petroglyphs, in fact are one of the Park’s attractions. I was amazed to see so much petrified wood still there.

The most impressive concentrations of the petrified remains of trees from 250 million years ago are along the trails leading from the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south end of the Park. They are the Long Logs Trail, which has the Park’s largest concentration of petrified wood; the Agate House Trail leading to a pueblo constructed from petrified wood; and the Giant Longs Trail, which passes the longest petrified log in the park. These three trails can be combined into a two mile loop. Having walked it all two years earlier, and with the Park about to close for the evening, I missed it this trip.

Next year, en route to Tucson, I’ll be sure to catch them again, and for sure the trail between Tawa and Kachina points overlooking the Painted Desert.

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