Petrified Forest National Park
Distance: 3 miles Time: 2 hours Type: There and back
Petrification is a process which occurs over millions of year: a tree buried under sediment or volcanic ash and deprived of oxygen is preserved; mineral-rich water deposits minerals in the plant's cells; the plant's lignin and cellulose decay and, in its place, stone forms. The shape of the tree remains but it has transformed. The organic - a tree - turns to rock.
Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona comprises 230 square miles and contains large deposits of petrified forest from plants which were alive 225 million years ago. Around 100 miles east of Flagstaff, it doesn't offer as dramatic landscapes as some of the other National Parks in the state and attracts fewer visitors, but the scenery is colourful, alien and quite unique. A photographer's paradise, I actually found it one of the most enjoyable parks to visit in the area.
There are lots of viewpoints along the single road which traverses the Park south to north. However, the best way to enjoy the strange landscapes and appreciate the petrified wood and is to walk amongst it. Blue Forest trail is off the beaten track, quite literally - it follows an unmarked but barely visible route through a particularly photogenic, Martian-like section of the Park. You can expect some solitude: I didn't pass a single person on this walk. You should either print off the trail instructions (see link below) or pick up a copy from the information center before heading out as the route is otherwise quite difficult to follow. If you have time, it would also be well worth getting a permit to camp overnight among the dunes. Why 2 hours to walk 3 miles? Because, if you're like me, you'll be stopping to take pictures all the way.
The gateway town - Holbrook - lies 25 miles to the west of the Park entrance and has little to offer. The Park can easily be visited in a day or, if you don't want to hike and are happy to make brief stops, in a single morning or afternoon. However, I think that would do the Park a disservice: by far the best way to see it is up close, on foot.
The Blue Forest Trail connects the main park road at the Tepees area to the paved Blue Mesa Trail, which can be accessed from the Blue Mesa Loop Road. If you can arrange a shuttle, you could complete the walk one-way. But to be honest, it may not be worth the hassle: it's not a particularly long walk and there is just as much enjoyment to be had retracing your steps.
If you are walking from the west, you can park in a small pull out area just before the Tepees. You'll see it on your right-hand side as you drive north: look out for a wide pale track that leads from the main road directly east. It isn't signposted so keep your eyes peeled. Otherwise, you could park on the Blue Mesa Loop Road and tackle the walk from the east.
The first half mile of the trail follows an old road grade and is relatively flat. Then you come to a small hill and, to begin with, the trail is fairly obvious. Simply follow a white trail which switchbacks up the hill. As you continue, you'll gain confidence with the trail. It is subtle but distinct: you'll see the remains of the old gravel path and it becomes quite instinctive quite quickly.
The path winds further along the tops of the hills and passes several deposits of petrified wood. The views back to the west are quite impressive. It's quite easy to divert from the path to explore some of the dips and hills: just make sure you are able to reorientate yourself and find the path again. At a couple of places the path actually follows the top of some steep ridges and the gravel can be slippery. Eventually, you will see the paved Blue Mesa Trail which connects to the Blue Mesa Loop Road. Here, you drop down to join the path and continue to the trailhead before making your return.
For more information: