Rt 66 - Painted Desert/Petrified Forest, AZ

Only one national park in the country includes and protects a section of historic Route 66

It's a two-for-one National Park deal! One entry fee got me into both the Painted Desert National Park and the Petrified Forest National Park. After paying my admission, the ranger asked me if I had any petrified wood in my car. I said yes, that I had bought some at the Rainbow Rock Shop in Holbrook. She asked if I had a receipt and yes, I did. I noticed a sign later when I left the park that vehicles can be subject to search, as they don’t want anyone poaching petrified wood from the forest.

Past the ranger booth, the road travels about ten miles though the badlands, with numerous turnouts to stop and take in vistas of the Painted Desert. I stopped at most of them, enjoying the hills and buttes in colors of every hue – lavenders, reds, pinks, oranges and grays. Rumor, our good friend and road companion, has it that the Painted Desert received its name from a Spanish explorer. While standing on the edge of a vast badlands, he observed the hills and quietly said "El Desierto Pintado," because they looked like they were painted with the colors of the sunset.

Wind and running water cut these features from the Chinle formation deposited over 200 million years ago when this area was a vast inland basin near sea level. The colors are due to ancient environmental conditions in which the sediments were originally depoosted as well as the type of minerals present in the rocks.
— NPS sign

A couple miles into the park, I arrived at the Painted Desert Inn which was completed in 1920 and later purchased by the NPS in 1935. It operated as an inn for several years by the Fred Harvey Company, until it closed prior to WWII. It’s a great looking building which was actually scheduled for demolition in 1975, but thanks to a public campaign the building was saved, restored and later added to the National Register of Historic Places. Click HERE for a more in-depth history. 

I continued along the road, enjoying the spectacular scenery and colors and eventually crossed over I-40 and headed towards the Petrified Forest.

My first stop was Puerco Pueblo, the site of a 100-room pueblo which was home to some 200 people around A.D. 1300. There’s a short, .3-mile-long trail that tours the site, along with a few pictograph and petroglyph sites in the nearby canyon. I spent a good amount of time here.

These are a few of the petroglyphs in the area, there are probably more all up and down the small canyon here.

More than 650 images adorn the boulders below — one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in the park. People who farmed the Puerco River Valley 650 to 2,000 years ago pecked these petroglyphs onto the rocks, leaving a legacy etched in stone.
— NPS sign

My next stop along the way was Newspaper Rock. Turning off the main park highway, a short road led to a parking area, which is about as close to Newspaper Rock as visitors are allowed to get. Looking down into the canyon, there are a jumble of boulders, and in the desert varnish on many of them, petroglyphs.

More than 650 designs carved into the rocks. Even from a distance, it’s a pretty amazing sight. I only wish there was a walkway that would allow folks to get a closer look. Thank goodness for the telephoto lens.

The Tepees are amazing. These sculpted and colorful buttes are made up of mudstones and sandstone beds, basically river related deposits. They are approximately 220-225 million years old, just a baby in a geologic sense. The colors look even better in person than in the pictures.

As I turned off on the road that led to the Jasper Forest, I was excited. I didn’t know what to expect, so my expectations were high. What I didn’t realize (but should have known), when they say “forest,” what they mean are the fossilized remains of a forest. There’s no shade in the Petrified Forest today. 

That's the Jasper Forest out there on the plain. All those little lumps are chunks of petrified wood. They used to be located up higher on the buttes, but time and erosion tumbled them down to where they are today. The Jasper Forest used to be full of fallen, petrified logs but commercial collectors ransacked the area in the 19th and early 20th century, seeking petrified wood to sell for souvenirs

The Jasper Forest is quite a distance away from the viewing area, and spread out over several acres. It was a nice vista, but I was a bit disappointed, as I wasn't able to get up close and personal.

The Crystal Forest, however, was pretty cool. Sure, it was still just chunks of petrified wood scattered about the desert ground, but there was a bunch of it. And some of these chunks were huge. And there was a trail right through it, so I could touch them. Apparently, before the area became protected, a lot of “collecting” took place here as many of the pieces of petrified wood had beautiful crystals and opals. I enjoyed walking this one-mile-long trail.

I only had time to visit a small portion of the Petrified Forest National Park. There were a number of different sights farther down the road, and a number of hiking trails to explore that I will have to save for another visit. Which is ok, as that gives me a great reason to come back and see what I can find.