Kaleidoscope Colors and Serene Landscape Shine in Petrified Forest

It’s like Badlands meets a rainbow forest meets a desert

It may not be as famous as the Grand Canyon but no visit to northern Arizona is complete without a trip to Petrified Forest National Park. Covering over 220 square miles of Technicolor desert there’s way more to this park than its namesake fossilized wood.

Petrified Forest is also home to numerous paleontological exhibits, petroglyphs, and a wide range of living flora and fauna, including coyotes, bobcats, pronghorns, and over 200 species of birds. The park’s landscape has been inhabited by humans for at least 8,000 years and more than 600 archeological sites within the park’s boundaries reveal just a few of our ancient ancestors’ secrets.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park is situated in the northern reaches of Arizona’s high desert climate which means its temperatures vary widely both by season and sometimes within a single day. July highs can easily reach over 100 degrees while the winter sees temperatures below freezing and occasional snow. Because the weather at the park is so variable it’s important to dress in layers and bring waterproof clothing.

The park is located about midway between Albuquerque and Flagstaff and is easily reached via I-40. Communities in the park’s direct vicinity include the small towns of Sanders, Joseph City, and Holbrook. Winslow—of Eagles song fame—is about an hour west of the park.

Visitors come to Petrified Forest National Park to enjoy this unique and surreal landscape, a surprising splash of color in the desert’s depths. Along with hiking, backpacking, and horseback riding, the Park Service also hosts a variety of ranger-led events including guided tours and cultural demonstrations. For full details on current events, check the park’s official calendar before your trip.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike other tree-centric parks in the National Park System, this is a remote desert terrain with behemoth boulder-sized logs scattered across the land. The name “forest” is a misnomer in this arid land of wind-swept badlands, fossilized bones, faded petroglyphs, and petrified wood.

Located in the sleepy northeast part of the state, this is the only national park in America that’s bisected by Route 66 making it the most quintessential road trip park you never knew you needed. Plus, being overshadowed by that other Arizona national park Petrified Forest is comparatively quieter—with about 4 million fewer visitors than the Grand Canyon—but it’s especially enchanting.

With a dusty, barren backdrop reminiscent of a scene from Cars, this 221,390-acre park is a sleeper hit for geologists, paleontologists, and tree-huggers—even though the resident trees have been dead for 200 million years.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Whereas once mighty trees stood as tall as sequoias in tropical, dinosaur-dwelling jungles, they’ve long since succumbed to the powers of Mother Nature. Preserved in time, these trees were felled by raging rivers hundreds of millions of years ago then buried under sediment and slowly crystalized by volcanic ash and silica.

Nowadays, remnants of Arizona’s tropical past have long since dwindled, leaving behind gigantic petrified logs that have been almost entirely transformed into solid quartz. Serious desert bling, the logs get their kaleidoscopic shimmer from iron, carbon, and manganese imbuing tints of purple and royal green.

It may not look like much at first but this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it park is home to one of the largest collections of petrified wood on Earth, perfectly preserved relics of a prehistoric era where rivers once raged and terrifying reptilians once prowled. Composed of several smaller “forests,” like Rainbow Forest and Painted Desert the park is teeming with lustrous logs strewn across badlands and buttes. Home to easy hiking trails, Jurassic-level fossils, and ancient petroglyphs, Petrified Forest is like a road trip time capsule to a bygone epoch. Here’s what to know about visiting.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit Petrified Forest National Park

Unlike Grand Canyon National Park which sees more than 4 million annual visitors, Petrified Forest sees a scant 600,000 visitors each year making this one low-key park where you don’t need to worry about crowds, traffic, or a lack of trailhead parking spaces. The only thing you need to contend with when mapping out a stop at Petrified Forest is the weather. This is Arizona after all—a state whose scorching forecasts are decidedly not low-key.

Thanks to its high elevation around 5,800 feet the park isn’t as searingly hot as much of the rest of the state but July and August can still see temps soar well into the 90s. And because you’re that much closer to the sun you’ll feel the burn. This being the desert, things cool off dramatically after sunset plummeting down to the low 50s even at the summer peak.

While summer is prime time for the park your best bet to beat the heat is to arrive early—unlike most national parks, Petrified Forest has designated park hours of 8 am–6 pm and there’s a literal gate on the main park road (keep in mind that Arizona does not observe daylight savings time).

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the park sees very little precipitation, July and August are the months when afternoon storms are most likely which would be refreshing if it weren’t for the fact that rain turns the sandy landscape into one big slippery mud pit. Winter gets shockingly cool by most Arizona standards with highs in the mid-40s. Spring can be windy but dry and fall still gets some of those tapered thunderstorms but with comfortably cooler temperatures.

The ultimate road trip park

With Route 66 conveniently weaving right through the park making Petrified Forest the only national park with a section of the Americana highway, this is one park that’s especially perfect for road trips.

Related article: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main artery is Park Road which meanders for 28 miles from the Painted Desert Visitor Center in the north to the Rainbow Forest Museum on the southern end. Not only straightforward and easy the road is one of the most epic and enchanting scenic drives in any national park with numerous pullouts to park and gawk. You’ll also find several short and easy hiking trails going from the lookout spots heading into the quiet wilderness. Of the park’s seven designated trails none are more than three miles and they’re all dog-friendly.

Painted Desert Visitor Center, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start with a stop at the visitor center where exhibits and an introductory film show how these once-soaring trees transformed into the bejeweled boulders they are today. Driving south, prime pit stops include Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock for petroglyphs and indigenous lore.

Painted Desert Visitor Center, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also find must-do trails like Blue Mesa which is a prime example of quality over quantity—a short paved loop begins atop a ridge of blue-tinted badlands before descending into the desert dotted with shimmering petrified wood. For even more wow stop at the Giant Logs Trail, home to the largest fallen trees in the park including Old Faithful, a log so large that it’s as wide as an RV.

While designated trails are sparse, visitors can venture into the park’s 50,000 acres of backcountry wilderness, hiking and camping wherever their heart desires (as long as you’re at least a mile from the road).

Blue Mesa Trail, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jurassic life

Sure, you could watch the Jurassic World movie or you can just live your best Jurassic life in Petrified Forest (without the risk of being chased by velociraptor dinosaurs), home to real-deal fossils and some intimidatingly epic history.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When these trees once stood some 200 feet tall in a sub-tropical wilderness that looks nothing like present-day Arizona the region was located further toward the Equator. It once swarmed with dinos so fierce and huge—including crocodile-like nightmare creatures—they would make the Jurassic Park franchise look like a Nickelodeon cartoon. Of the park’s insightful museums, the Rainbow Forest Museum at the southern end contains fossils and exhibits that tell the story of the region’s Jurassic-level past.

Related article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 200 million years later, the “forest” was once again abuzz with new residents. Evidence exists of indigenous people living here for millennia leaving behind preserved remnants like rock-carved petroglyphs at sites like Newspaper Rock.

To delve even deeper into Native American lore, the Puerco Pueblo Trail is a hop and skip to a once-thriving village that stood around the year 1300 comprised mostly of wood and mud. The most intact of the park’s bygone villages, Puerco Pueblo still has multiple open-air rooms anchored by an inner plaza that once served as a communal, ceremonial gathering place.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp near Petrified Forest

Around here, campground sites are even more sparse than the hiking trails. Aside from camping in the primitive backcountry, there are no campgrounds in the park, and staying overnight in an RV or otherwise is not allowed—the gates on the Park Road close at 6 p.m. and that means it’s time to go. To camp, you’ll need to acquire a wilderness permit which is free from either visitor center on the day you plan on roughing it.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outside of the park, campgrounds—for both RVers and tents—can be found at nearby national park sites like Canyon de Chelly National Monument as well as in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and state parks like Homolovi State Park and Lyman Lake State Park.

Related article: The Most Beautiful Places in Arizona (That Aren’t the Grand Canyon)

For a private park with full-hookups, OK RV Park in Holbrook is your best bet.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike some national parks where nearby restaurant options are surprisingly abundant, Petrified Forest is not a foodie paradise. Holbrook is comprised mostly of chains save for a few straightforward mom-and-pop spots like Tom & Suzie’s Diner and Sombreritos Mexican Food. But you’re road-tripping here for the fossilized trees, after all, not the haute cuisine.

Worth Pondering…

Quite a forest of petrified trees was discovered today…they are converted into beautiful specimens of variegated jasper. One trunk was measured ten feet in diameter, and more than one hundred feet in length…

—Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, 1853

The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

See and explore one of the largest and most colorful petrified wood sites in the world

It isn’t the colorful landscapes, the winding trails, the fresh air, or even the wide-open spaces that make the Petrified Forest so interesting—though it offers all of those things. Petrified Forest is home to the world’s largest collection of petrified wood. Its lifecycle began 225 million years ago when an ancient forest was buried beneath a river system where it laid dormant for millennia.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fast forward to 60 million years ago—that is when the Colorado Plateau began uplifting to expose the trees to oxygen, fracturing them into large pieces that lay upon Earth today for us all to go and see. It’s amazing to look at. The exterior appears just like any wooden tree bark does but upon touch, it is the smoothest, hardest material you’ll ever feel. Flip it over and you’ll see a vibrantly colored, ornately designed interior made of quartz that glints with brilliance in every shift of light.

Perhaps most remarkable is that anyone can pick up a piece and examine the effects of wood exposed to the forces of nature spanning millennia. Wrap your mind around that for a moment—you can hold in your hand a piece of Earth that is 225 million years old. That alone is incredible.

But the wonder doesn’t stop there. The park’s north side is home to colorful badlands at the Painted Desert and Blue Mesa where I was the most enchanted. Here the blue, purple, and ivory sculpted hills are topped with pieces of quartz. There are both petroglyphs and ancient ruins in several areas of the park that tell the story of primitive cultures and peoples.

Related Article: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Park’s fallen tree fossils mostly date from the Late Triassic Epoch—a massive 225 million years ago. That means that the T-Rex that lived only 65 million years ago was much closer to our time than these fossils. Other popular activities include hiking and horse riding in this vibrant and colorful wilderness.

The sediments of the Late Triassic Epoch that contain all of these trees are part of the Chinle Formation. The Late Triassic was when dinosaur life was at its most spectacular and so this is one of the sites that dinosaur lovers should visit. This formation is stunningly colorful and is where the Painted Desert gets its name. There are some fossilized animals in this park—notably the large flying reptiles and phytosaurs.

Fun Fact: Pterodactyls are not dinosaurs

Over 200 million years ago, this part of what is now Arizona was a lush landscape filled with flourishing trees and other kinds of vegetation. But this was destroyed in a large volcanic explosion and the remains of this forest were preserved and embedded in the volcanic ash and water.

And there is wind—amazing wind that continues to erode Earth, exposing more wood, and shaping what is already there. Like all of the parks, once I dug in and learned more about the reason the park was protected in the first place, I wanted to stay much, much longer.

Historic Route 66 in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If history and science aren’t your things, there is another unique draw here—this is where you can get the best of American kitsch while stepping foot onto the Mother Road: America’s Historic Route 66. Route 66 in its original form is no longer in existence but at Petrified Forest, you can visit the only section of the famed road existing inside a national park.

Nearby in the town of Holbrook lives the classic Wigwam Motel—on the National Register of Historic Places—providing a glimpse into the mid-20th century golden age of travel.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Route 66 is a classic destination that all should visit at least once in their lives. But the Mother Road won’t transport your mind’s eye to a place and time where ancient birds flew before dinosaurs roamed the planet hundreds of millions of years ago; for that experience, you’ll need to visit Petrified Forest, National Park. This is one of those places where time and age are your companions. One breath in and one lookout and you can truly sense and feel the tale of prehistoric life on Earth.

Related Article: 10 of the Best Scenic Drives in National Parks

After many millions of years of being buried, the sediment has been eroding and exposing the forest entombed within it. Today the petrified wood has been turned into quartz.

Painted Desert Inn, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pueblo sites

The park boasts more than just the Petrified Forest. There are 13,000 years of human history to discover at the park. One of the main human traditions includes a nearly 800-year-old 100 room dwelling. There are around 600 archeological sites in the national park including various petroglyphs. These lands had been inhabited by pueblos but it was abandoned by around 1400.

Hiking

Hiking is one of the best ways to explore the Petrified Forest National Park and there are several designated hiking trails crisscrossing the park. These trails range from less than half a mile to about three miles.

Tawa Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tawa Trail

Length: 1.2 miles one way

Trailheads: Tawa Point and Painted Desert Visitor Center

Enjoy the tranquility of the grassland as the trail leads from scenic Tawa Point to the Painted Desert Visitor Center. In Hopi ideology, Tawa refers to the Sun Spirit, the Creator of the World. The Hopi are one of several current Native American groups who are connected to the rich and varied history of the Petrified Forest.

Painted Desert Rim Trail

Length: 1 mile round trip

Trailheads: Tawa Point and Kachina Point

This unpaved trail winds through the rim woodland, a place for chance encounters with many species of plants and animals and spectacular views of the Painted Desert.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Puerco Pueblo Trail

Length: 0.3 miles loop

Trailhead: Puerco Pueblo parking area

A paved walk amidst the remains of a hundred-room pueblo occupied by the ancestral Puebloan people over 600 years ago. Petroglyphs can be viewed along the south end of the trail. Please do not climb on the boulders or walls and do not touch the petroglyphs.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

Blue Mesa Trail

Length: 1 mile loop

Trailhead: Blue Mesa sun shelter

Descending from the mesa, this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among badland hills of the bluish bentonite clay as well as petrified wood. Numerous plant and animal fossils have been found by paleontologists in the sedimentary layers of Blue Mesa.

Crystal Forest

Length: 0.75 mile loop

Trailhead: Crystal Forest parking area

Named for the presence of beautiful crystals that can be found in the petrified logs, this trail offers one of the best opportunities to experience the petrified wood deposits.

Giant Logs Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Giant Logs

Length: 0.4 mile loop

Location: Behind Rainbow Forest Museum

Giant Logs features some of the largest and most colorful logs in the park. “Old Faithful” at the top of the trail is almost ten feet wide at the base. A trail guide is available at Rainbow Forest Museum.

Accommodation

No accommodation is available within the park. Boondocking, primitive camping, and pulling off to spend the night in a parking area are not permitted.

The gateway to the park is the town of Holbrook. It is around 20 miles to the west of the park and offers a full range of accommodation options. We used OK RV Park as our home base while exploring Petrified National Park. Easily accessible from I-40, the 150 pull-through gravel sites offer water and sewer connections and the choice of 30 or 50 amp electric service.

Related Article: Why Arizona is the Ultimate Road Trip Destination

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 93,533 acres with more than half as dedicated Wilderness area

Date established: December 9, 1962 (established as a National Monument by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906)

Location: Northeast Arizona (the nearest town is Holbrook)

Park elevation: Averages 5,400 feet

Weather: Petrified Forest National Park is a semi-arid grassland. Temperatures range from above 100 degrees to well below freezing. About 10 inches of moisture comes during infrequent snow in the winter and often violent summer thunderstorms. Check out the forecast before you arrive and plan accordingly.

Operating hours: Every day year-round (closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Park hours are 8 am to 6 pm. You must enter the park before 5 pm. Remember that this is Mountain Standard year-round as Arizona does not observe Daylight Saving Time.

Park entrance fee: $25 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Recreational visits (2021): 590,334

Roads: Historic Route 66 and I-40 run through the park

Wild animals in the park: Bobcats, pronghorns, coyotes, and over 200 species of birds

How the park got its name: Petrified Forest was named after a wilderness of 225 million-year-old trees that have, over time, turned into solid quartz (and not from being petrified with fear)

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: The colorful Painted Desert that stretches from the Grand Canyon is the best-known landmark at Petrified Forest and it greets you right as you cross through the northern boundary of the park. It was given its name by Spanish explorers who thought the clay and mudstone badlands looked like a sunset painted onto the landscape. This landmark is a protected Wilderness area so you won’t be exploring its interior by car (although there are viewpoints that you can pull up to). The best way to explore it is to head out on foot on a 1-mile unpaved loop trail where you can see the picturesque rim from a different vantage point.

A must-see cultural stop nearby is at the 100-year-old Painted Desert Inn where you can view in real life restored mural art created by famed Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.

Did you know?

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park has a world class fossil record with artifacts dating to the Triassic Period, 200 million years ago, before the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs roamed our home planet. The Triassic era is known as the “Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”  

Petrified Forest is home to fossils of massive crocodile-like creatures known as Phytosaurs as well as remnants from 13,000 years of human history including the remains of villages, tools, and grinding stones.

Archeological relics prove that humans have lived in the area for more than 10,000 years. 

Some of the trees in the park measure up to 200 feet—about the length of the wingspan of a 747 jet. 

Petrified Forest is the only national park where a segment of Route 66 exists.   

Painted Desert Inn, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the wall of the historic Painted Desert Inn you can visually wander along the path of the Native American people in the area as depicted in a painting by famed Hopi artist, Fred Kapotie. 

Worth Pondering…

Quite a forest of petrified trees was discovered today…they are converted into beautiful specimens of variegated jasper. One trunk was measured ten feet in diameter, and more than one hundred feet in length…

—Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, 1853

15 Surreal Desert Landscapes that Feel Like a Different Planet

You don’t have to travel to the moon to feel like you’re no longer on Earth

In 2004, Burt Rutan’s privately built SpaceShipOne flew just beyond the edge of space before landing safely back on Earth. That historic feat was enough to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize as well as help convince the public that an era of space tourism was finally within humanity’s grasp. Now, more than 15 years later, aspiring space tourists are on the verge of having their dreams realized.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A year ago this month, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule safely ferried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken back to Earth following a multi-month trip to the International Space Station (ISS). No privately built spacecraft had ever carried humans into orbit before.

It’s finally looking like the exciting era of space tourism is about to erupt. A handful of so-called “new space” companies are now competing to sell space tourists’ trips on private spacecraft. Each one has a slightly different means of reaching space and not all of them will get you all the way into orbit. But as long as you’re rich you should have no problem purchasing your ticket to space.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last week, the space tourism company Space Perspective opened up reservations for a “luxury” six-hour flight to the edge of space on giant balloons the size of a football stadium. The cost per ticket: $125,000. Which begs the question: Would you be willing to pay to travel to space or would you need to get paid to travel to space? 

For those of us who prefer to stay grounded and travel in a recreational vehicle, there are numerous options to explore land formations created by volcanic eruptions or extreme temperatures that have altered the planet in strange ways.

My round-up of 15 of the most surreal landscapes in America showcases locations that have mesmerized travelers, inspired local legends, and even baffled scientists for centuries.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you’ve never heard the word “hoodoo,” it’s probably because you’re unfamiliar with the bizarre rock formations at Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that come out of an arid basin or badland. The ones found in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon are particularly fascinating and striking due to their size and volume with the natural amphitheaters inside the park. All year-round, the park is known for its surreal Instagram-able sights including when snow falls on the hoodoos. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

At first glance, the glistening hills of White Sands National Park appear to be mounds of snow—but upon closer examination, the dunes are made of stark-white gypsum sand. It’s a natural wonder that spans 275 square miles making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. When you’re done staring in awe at the surreal white dunes, you can hike them, camp on them, sunbathe on them, and even slide down them in plastic sleds. Some of the wildlife that lives in the dunes has adapted to its surroundings by taking on a white color (namely the white sands wood rat and the bleached earless lizard). When daylight breaks, the white sand takes on a surreal red-pinkish hue and for a few minutes after sunset, the sand seems to glow.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand makes Monument Valley the most surreal landscape in the southwest. Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. It is those sights that take your breath away and make you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses were trapped at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst for an inexplicable reason. Taking a mountain bike to the area is a great way to explore the park and imagine the cowboy way of life at this surreal location. 

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Painted Desert, Arizona

Who says deserts have to be drab beige? In the Painted Desert of Petrified Forest National Park, the rocky badlands range in color from reds, oranges, and pinks to dark purples and grays. It is the sort of place that truly lives up to its name—making you feel as though you’re looking at a brightly colored painting, not a real place. For the best experience, visit at sunrise or sunset when the sun makes everything pop even more.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famed for its sheer sandstone cliffs. A rich diversity of wildlife thrives in this biologically rich habitat. Narrow canyons, flowing rivers, ponderosa forests, and waterfalls add to the wonder. Thrill-seekers can test their mental and physical fortitude by attempting to conquer the five-mile-long Angel’s Landing trail. Sharp switchbacks and dizzying drop-offs make it a challenging trek but the stunning views from the summit are well worth it.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park spans 800,000 arid acres and includes two distinct desert ecosystems. Its surreal tableau is punctuated by massive boulders, Dr. Seuss-like yucca palms, and archaeological marvels. Hiking is the primary draw but with 8,000 climbing routes, vertical adventure is a close second. At night, dark skies are sublime for stargazing. You can sleep under the cosmos at the nine on-site campgrounds.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon, Arizona and Utah

Sitting on the Utah-Arizona border and encompassing over a million acres, Glen Canyon has a ton of stuff to see and experience. Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and the iconic formations at Rainbow Bridge are all found in Glen Canyon. Petroglyphs and other ancient markings show just how long people have been coming to the area for all kinds of adventures. Modern-day explorers will enjoy bringing their cameras and taking some incredible photos to share on social media. 

Cathedral Rock at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Mystical, majestic, and surreal, Sedona casts a spell with its fiery rock formulations, steep canyons, energy vortexes, and pine forests. This hallowed landscape attracts four million people each year—many seeking spiritual transformation. Not surprisingly, it has become a hotbed of New Age healing with many wellness-oriented outposts like crystal shops, aura readers, yoga studios, and holistic spas. In case you are curious, this Sedona road trip is as magical as everyone says it is.

San Rafael Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Rafael River, Utah

To those who think, “Gosh I love the Grand Canyon, I just wish it was smaller,” the San Rafael River is the place for you. Located in Emery County, the San Rafael River Gorge is often called the “Little Grand Canyon.” The canyons’ walls that sit at a nearly 90-degree angle serve as eye-catching views from above and from those floating through the Green River which flows through the gorge on its way to joining the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park near Moab.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

The Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook on US-163 south of Natural Bridges National Monument. You enter another world as you descend from scrub forest to desert. Like a miniature Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There are a lot of things going on in Capitol Reef which was named a national monument in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then a national park in 1971. The Navajo Sandstone cliff features fascinating white dome formations. The area also features amazing ridges, bridges, and monoliths (not the metal ones that have been mysteriously popping up around the state). The petroglyphs in the gorge are also a must-see.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when the molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.  

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Every adventure needs a base camp. Moab offers access to the mind-blowing red rocks of Arches National Park and gushing waters of the Colorado River plus plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Uranium may have put this Utah town on the map in the early 1900s but its story began in the Mesozoic Era. Aspiring paleontologists can dig for fossils and follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Moab Giants. For the over 21 crowds, there’s a brewery and Spanish Valley Vineyards hosts daily wine tastings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park opened for summertime activities last week. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow. Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams.

Worth Pondering…

Life is surreal and beautiful.

—Kenneth Branagh

Memorial Day 2021: Best Arizona Road Trips for the Long Holiday Weekend

Here are a few places to visit in Arizona as you plan your Memorial Day getaway

Memorial Day weekend kicks off the traditional summer travel season. This year there is even more pent-up yearning than normal. Everyone is eager to get out of town. Road trips are the hot new summer accessory.

Fortunately, Arizona is a road trip nirvana. The nation’s sixth-largest state by area, Arizona covers nearly 114,000 square miles. Most population centers are found in clustered bunches leaving vast tracts of backcountry for exploring. A number of small towns add character and keep travelers gassed up and well-fed.

Here are a few getaways to get you going on Memorial Day weekend and into the summer months.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Vibrant badlands of the Painted Desert spread across the northern portion of the park while trees turned to stone—trees that once shaded dinosaurs—lay undisturbed amid the hills and hoodoos of the southern half. Welcome to Triassic Park.

Crystal Forest Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fossils of the plants and animals unearthed here tell the story of a time when the world was young. Just as important to the casual visitor this area is set amid rolling plains and brilliantly colored badlands beneath a vast blue sky.

During the Triassic period, this was a humid forested basin. Crocodile-like reptiles, giant amphibians, and small dinosaurs roamed among towering trees and leafy ferns. As the trees died they were washed into the swamps and buried beneath volcanic ash where the woody tissue was replaced by dissolved silica eventually forming petrified wood.

Petrified Forest lies a short distance east of Holbrook and can be accessed from Interstate 40 or U.S. 180. Take the 28-mile scenic drive that cuts north to south connecting park highlights from roadside vistas to historic sites to hiking trails. Don’t miss Blue Mesa, a short loop trail skirting colorful badlands. Some of the best displays of petrified logs can be seen along the short Crystal Forest Trail.

Grand Canyon, South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon North Rim

Make this the summer you visit the other side of the Big Ditch. The North Rim reopened on May 15 for its summer season. This isn’t your typical high country getaway. The North Rim is defined not just by elevation but by isolation. This is an alpine outback of sun-dappled forests of ponderosa pines, blue spruce, Douglas firs, and aspens interrupted by lush meadows and wildflowers.

If you’ve only visited the South Rim you may be surprised by the lack of crowds at the North Rim. A quiet serenity is normal on this side of the trench. It rises 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart and you’ll likely see more elk and deer than tour groups. There are no helicopter rides, no shuttle buses, and no bustling village. Of the millions of people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year less than 10 percent make it to the North Rim.

Even the journey is part of the adventure. State Route 67 from Jacob Lake to the park entrance is a National Scenic Byway as it traverses a stunning mix of broad forests and lush meadows. During your visit enjoy hiking trails, scenic drives, and forested solitude.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot national monuments

Follow ancient paths when you visit the national monuments of the Verde Valley amid remnants of Sinagua culture. The Sinagua were Ancestral Puebloan people who flourished in central Arizona from about 600 to 1425. They left behind art, artifacts, and architecture.

Built into a high limestone balcony, the 20-room Montezuma Castle near Camp Verde is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the U.S. A paved trail meanders beneath the shade of graceful sycamore trees and leads to scenic viewpoints of the towering abode.

It was inhabited from about 1100 to 1425 with occupation peaking around 1300. The people farmed the rich floodplain nearby. Many of the original ceiling beams are still intact even though they were installed more than 800 years ago. Early settlers believed the castle was built by Aztec emperor Montezuma and the name stuck.

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to visit Montezuma Well, a detached unit of the national monument 11 miles away. The natural limestone sinkhole pumps out 1.5 million gallons of water each day from an underground spring. Several cliff dwellings perch along the rocky rim of the well and the remnants of a prehistoric canal can still be seen.

Tuzigoot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument is a more interactive experience since you can walk around the village. Situated between Clarkdale and Cottonwood the remnants of this Sinagua pueblo crown a hilltop overlooking the Verde River. The terraced 110-room village was built between 1125 and 1400.

Walk the loop trail to savor wraparound views of the lush Verde Valley framed by rising mountains. The National Park Service has restored a two-story room at Tuzigoot (Apache for “crooked water”) so visitors can admire the building techniques and materials.

Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Islands

Arizona truly is a land of extremes. Temperatures vary from place to place and even day tonight. Few geographic formations in the world illustrate this stark climactic contrast better than Sky Islands. Visitors to Southern Arizona are often struck by these vast mountain ranges rising suddenly out of the desert and grasslands. Saguaro, prickly pear, and ocotillo rapidly give way to a coniferous forest and a much cooler climate. Usually 6,000–8,000 feet in elevation these majestic mountains emerge from a sea of desert scrub.

Chirichua Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Sky Island is defined as a mountain that is separated from other mountains by distance and by surrounding lowlands of a dramatically different environment. As the mountain increases in elevation, ecosystem zones change at different elevations. Coronado National Forest protects the twelve Sky Islands of Southwestern Arizona. These Sky Island ranges include the Chiricahua Mountains, Whetstone Mountains, Huachuca Mountains, Galiuro Mountans, Dragoon Mountains, Pinaleño Mountains, Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Mountains, and Santa Rita Mountains. The tallest of these areas are the Pinaleño Mountains rising to 10,720 feet above the Gila River near the town of Safford.

Thanks to their rapid gain in elevation, Sky Island peaks remain temperate even in the fiercest summer heat. When Tucson’s mercury climbs above 100 degrees in summer months, the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon offers respite to overheated fauna (including the human variety) with temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

The Real “Triassic” Park

The colorful rock layers of northeastern Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park form a visual display of eroded badlands, dating to the Triassic.

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs, exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago, tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards, exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils.

The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert, and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

The land below is awash in burnt sienna, deep maroon, dusty purple, and sprinkled here and there with green plants.

Petrified Forest, a surprising realm of fascinating landscape and science, was set aside as a national monument in 1906 to preserve and protect the petrified wood for its scientific value. The Painted Desert was added later, and in 1962, the entire monument received national park status.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is recognized today for having so much more, including a broad representation of the Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem, significant human history, clear night skies, fragile grasslands ecosystem, and unspoiled scenic vistas.

More than 200 million years ago, flourishing trees and vegetation covered much of this area of northeastern Arizona. But volcanic lava destroyed the forest, the logs washed into an ancient river system and were embedded into sediment comprised of volcanic ash and water. Oxygen was cut off and decay slowed to a process that would now take centuries.

Minerals, including silica dissolved from volcanic ash, absorbed into the porous wood over hundreds and thousands of years, and crystallized replacing the organic material as it broke down over time. Sometimes crushing or decay left cracks in the logs. Here large jewel-like crystals of clear quartz, purple amethyst, yellow citrine, and smoky quartz formed.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Erosion set the logs free millions of years later, revealing the petrified wood made mostly of quartz—that visitors to the park come to see.

Though only seven species of tree have been identified through petrified wood, over 200 species of plants have currently been identified from other Triassic fossils, such as leaves, pollen, and spores.

The best way to enjoy and experience Petrified Forest National Park is on foot. Designated trails range in length from less than a half-mile to almost three miles.

Petrified Forest National Park stretches north and south between I-40 and U.S. Highway 180. There are two entrances into the park. Your direction of travel dictates which entrance is best to use.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Westbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to I-40 via Holbrook.

Eastbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 285 into Holbrook then travel 19 miles on U.S. Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance. Drive the 28 miles north through the park to return to I-40.

Many of the features at Petrified Forest are on a scale best appreciated by leaving the car. Plan enough time to walk among the fossil logs and Painted Desert badlands.

For a half-day visit, follow the park road from the Rainbow Forest Museum toward Pintado Point. If you can stay longer, include a walk to Agate House, take the trail into the Blue Mesa badlands, and consider a hike in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area.

Worth Pondering…

The way in which many Paleozoic life forms disappeared towards the end of the Permian Period brings to mind Joseph Hayden’s Farwell Symphony where, during the last movement, one musician after the other takes his instrument and leaves the stage until, at the end, none is left.

—Curt Teichert, 1990