Backcountry in Arizona’s Petrified Forest


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Week of April 18-24, 1996
Denali’s alter ego: Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias
Doggy dos and don’ts in national parks
Block Island: Your funky, affordable Nantucket
Activities on Little Cayman Island
Backcountry in Arizona’s Petrified Forest
Top trips for groups, from Utah to Maine

Backcountry in Arizona’s Petrified Forest
Question: I’m meeting my brother in Las Vegas in June and am planning a four-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. If we don’t get the backcountry permits for the canyon, where else can you recommend that’s within a half-day drive of Vegas?

Paul Blackburn
Brentwood, TN

An oft-overlooked gem that’s an uncrowded alternative to the Grand Canyon.

Adventure Adviser: A good alternative to the Grand Canyon is the often overlooked Petrified Forest National Park, about 200 miles southeast of Arizona’s main claim-to-fame canyon. Before you go, though, bear in mind that this ain’t no lush tropical rainforest. A desert landscape of barren mauve mounds, multicolored clay, and sandstone
mesas littered with brightly mineralized petrified logs, this is a land of little water and lots of sand. And since for most people this is merely a stopover en route to the Grand Canyon, you won’t have crowds to contend with.

Before you head into the backcountry, swing through the south part of the park, where you’ll see a log with the understated name of Old Faithful–it’s nine and a half feet in diameter–and others, as long as 170 feet, piled up like raw spaghetti. From there, take the northbound park road through the Painted Desert, past the Teepees–cone-shaped mounds of mudstone–and along
a volcanic rim with open-air views of red-rock mesas and slopes as colorful as Navajo rugs.

While there, make a point of stopping at Devil’s Playground, a brilliantly colored, wildly eroded badlands abut six miles west of Kachina Point, a good jumping-off point for a Painted Desert backcountry trek. Go armed with a free camping permit and maps–available at the visitor center, just off I-40–and plenty of water. Start by picking your way across steep clay hills
toward the obvious landmark of Pilot Rock, seven miles northwest of Kachina Point. It’s an easy climb up the 6,235-foot igneous rock bluff, which has spectacular views of the Sand Francisco Peaks to the west, the Hopi mesas to the northwest, and Navajo country to the north.

The next day, follow Digger Wash to Chinde Mesa, four miles east and from there, head due south through the dark fossilized wood of Black Forest to Onyx Bridge (a large petrified log that spans a gully) and back to Kachina Point. With a little deft map-and-compass work along the way, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding the petroglyphs and Indian ruins marked on your
topo map. Be prepared for summer thunderstorms, which bring out Painted Desert colors but make foot travel across the bentonite clay a stick-to-your-boots mess–and make you a human lightning rod. If the weather looks bad, put off your hike for a day, and check with the visitor center for updates.

For more information, call the park at 520-524-6228 and check out “Parkland Incognito” in the Destinations section of our August 1995 issue.

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