The Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park

The Grand Canyon is hard to beat, but when you follow the canyon with a place like Petrified Forest, you know you have taken a good shot at it.

On April 19, we drove a relatively short distance of 103 miles from our former location west of Flagstaff to Holbrook, Arizona. Holbrook is another of those old towns along the Historic Route 66. Unfortunately, it seems to have had its heyday when the road was the only way across the state. Today there is not a lot going on there. We did find a neat motel that must have been a popular stopover back in the day. Today it is still open and probably still pretty popular to the nostalgic seekers. I have posted a few photos of this cute place in the album that accompanies this article. Enjoy them.

I had been to Holbrook when my older sister, Holly, and her family lived there in the 1970’s. My then brother-in-law, Mark, was a construction surveyor and he worked at the local power plant during its construction. The family actually lived in Joseph City located just to the west of Holbrook. Joseph City offered even less than Holbrook for entertainment, so in order to dine out or do just about anything other than watch the children you had to go to Holbrook. Unfortunately, the only thing I remembered was the power plant. I doubt I really remembered it, I only knew that was why Mark was there in the first place. Connie and I drove to Joseph City and then drove up and down nearly every street in the hopes I could remember where Holly and her family lived. I recognized absolutely nothing. Now, in my defense, I was visiting Holly and Mark because I had taken a long leave from the Navy to go to Montana and finalize my engagement to a woman who was a really close friend of Holly’s as well as my girlfriend. She jilted me early in my visit, so I went home to Wyoming and got bored pretty quickly. So, when Holly invited me to Arizona, I couldn’t say no without hurting her feelings. So, I think it safe to say that I spent most of my Arizona visit licking my wounds and trying to put my life in order before returning to my ship in Hawaii. That is my excuse and I am sticking with it.

So, back to Holbrook. We had scheduled two nights in Holbrook giving us a full day to see the park. The information we had read indicated that the park could be done enroute to the east by going southeast from Holbrook to the southern entrance of Petrified Forest National Park and then working your way to the north and leaving The Painted Desert at the Tiponi Point entrance. However, for us to do that we would have had the motorhome with the car in tow. After seeing the available parking in The Grand Canyon National Park for big rigs, I was not too excited about doing the drive with the motorhome. So, we got a good night’s sleep on Saturday and made the drive on Sunday. I was really surprised at how light the traffic was. Now, if you recall, our visit to The Grand Canyon was done a very windy day. Our day in Petrified Forest was about the same. The difference was that we spent a lot more time out of the car walking in Petrified Forest than we did at The Grand Canyon. That could have explained the lighter than expected traffic, but I think this park just doesn’t get the promotion that The Grand Canyon gets. The weather the day we visited the canyon was no worse than on this day. Having light traffic was to our advantage as it made it much easier to get pictures without people.

There are examples of petrified forests around the world. However, there is no single location anywhere on the planet where so much of a forest has been uncovered by nature exposing literally thousands of trees. According to the park’s official brochure: “This high, dry grassland was once a vast floodplain crossed by many streams. Tall, stately conifer tress grew along the banks. Crocodile-like reptiles, giant amphibians, and small dinosaurs lived among a variety of ferns, cycads, and other plants and animals known only as fossils today. The trees, Araucarioxylon, Woodworthia, Schilderia, and others, fell, and swollen streams washed them into adjacent floodplains. A mix of silt, mud, and volcanic ash buried the logs. This sediment cut off oxygen and slowed the logs’ decay. Silica-laden groundwater seeped through the logs and replaced the original wood tissues with silica deposits. Eventually the silica crystallized into quartz, and the logs were preserved as petrified wood.

“Over the 225 million years since the trees lived, the continents moved to their present positions and this region was uplifted. As a result the climate changed, and the tropical environment became today’s grassland. Over time, wind and water wore away the rock layers and exposed fossilized ancient plants and animals. The hills will yield more fossils as weathering sculpts the Painted Desert’s soft sedimentary rock. “

So, that’s the history lesson. Knowing how it all happened is interesting, but seeing what happened is just plain neat. We stopped at every stop along the road and walked as far as the wind allowed us to.

Regarding the drive and parking, there were no stops that we could not have taken the motorhome into. In fact, there was a pick-up with a long fifth wheel shadowing us around the park and he was able to get everywhere we went. So, lesson learned, maybe.

I took a bunch of photos trying to capture the beauty of the park. However, photos alone cannot illustrate the enormous area where all this beauty exists. In fact, the park does not encompass all that was laid down by nature all those millions of years ago. There are hundreds if not thousands petrified logs outside the park boundaries and that does not include those that have been mined to be sold in various tourist shops and indeed shipped all around the world. In a few of my photos you can see that many logs are literally all over one another. One of the things I found particularly interesting was how many of the logs looked to have been cut with a chain saw to a perfect fireplace length. In fact, the weathering process that exposed the logs also caused the cracking and subsequent breaking of the logs. I really hope my images do this remarkable place justice and I hope you enjoy them.

I have installed the link to the photo album below. The album has all the photos for this article, so be sure to hit the back button on your browser as many times as it takes to get you back here to read about the Painted Desert after you have seen the photos.

Geographically speaking the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest are in the same place. It is probably most correct to think of the Petrified Forest as a portion of the Painted Desert. However, I think there are examples of the forest in the northern regions of the desert, just not as readily visible or abundant.

Of course the beauty of the Painted Desert relies upon good light and good environmental conditions. We had great light, but there was a lot of dust in the air making the viewing just a little off. I did my best to capture the natural beauty of the desert without adding artificiality. It was a challenge to get what I could see through the viewfinder into the computer.

Now, there are some bonuses to visiting the Painted Desert. First, at the park’s narrowest point there is a Route 66 viewpoint where you can see the old road bed and the remains of a power line that once paralleled the historic highway. The other bonus you saw photos of in the album, The Painted Desert Inn. From the road this wonderful place looks small. From the inside, it is immense. Unfortunately, you can tour very little of the building at this point. However, it is a wonderful structure built during the highlight of stage and train travel to the Wild West. The gent who was working in the gift shop was a font of historical information about the building. As it turns out he lives in Joseph City. I didn’t have the heart to ask if he knew my sister. Truth is, he is probably younger than her youngest. I hope you enjoyed the photos I took of the inn. This place was operated by Fred Harvey, whom you will remember from the last article. There were rooms in the inn specifically for the “Harvey Girls”. Harvey Girls were the young women employed by Mr. Harvey to be servers in the dining rooms and chamber maids for the rooms. The girls were chosen for employment based on their moral upbringing as well as their ability to perform their duties. It must have been a wonderful experience to stay at the Painted Desert Inn. The view was worth the cost of admission and the stage ride to the inn.

The Petrified Forest and Painted Desert would be our final stop in Arizona. As we were driving east towards Grant, New Mexico on Monday, I started adding up the number of weeks we have spent in Arizona since we first crossed into the state from New Mexico back in October. If my math is correct we spent 15 weeks in Arizona in the last 8 months. That nearly makes us residents.

Since leaving Arizona we traveled across New Mexico to include a stopover in Santa Fe, the state’s capital and, for me, one of the most enchanting cities I have been to. There is a charm to Santa Fe that is hard to explain. First, there has been some outstanding city planning that has resulted in an ageless city that looks pretty much as it must have in the late 1800’s. I commented to Connie that I could go to the city’s center and just soak up the charm.

Some of you who know me know that some years ago while on a trip to Montana, Connie and I discovered that I had a bit of talent as an artist. Since that wonderful trip I have had little time nor opportunity to pursue my talents or perceived talents as an artist. Our short visit to Santa Fe made me want to come back and spend a lot of time reproducing the city with pens, pencils and paint brushes.

As an interesting side note about this beautiful city, most of the buildings regardless of when they were built are of the Santa Fe style. By that I mean the rounded corners, flat roofs and soft earthy colors. I was sort of taken aback to see that the state capitol and many of the state office buildings were built on what can only be described as a pseudo-Santa Fe style. They were certainly low buildings like all the rest of the buildings in the city, but instead of having the typical Santa Fe style, they had harsh square corners and roof lines. It was sort of curious that with the effort that has gone into preserving the “style” around the city that the state’s icons were built so 70ish. I was further amazed to watch a construction crew working on a brand new building in the downtown area that was being built in the traditional Santa Fe style, further illustrating that there is no reason that the capitol and other state office buildings could not have been built in the same style.

Another reason for going into the city was to visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Georgia O’Keeffe was an extremely talented artist who spent many years in New Mexico painting the landscape and the flowers of the landscape. As is the case with many artists she went through phases in her career. However, she is probably best known for her abstract recreations of parts of flowers at very close range. We enjoyed the tour of the museum, but Connie felt that her best work must be elsewhere. I actually liked some of her husband’s photographs better than her paintings. Of course the subject of his photos that appealed to me was her nude body. What can I say, I am only a man.

We ate lunch at a really old diner on the square in Santa Fe. The food was good, but the ambiance was great. There was a sign on the wall that listed all the important phone numbers anyone living in New Mexico would ever need. I took a picture. It is in the photo album I have linked below.

The photos in this album concentrate on the historic downtown area which is still very much the heart of this lively city. I think you will agree that this city has interesting lines.

We continued our trek across the country with stops in Liberal and Wichita, Kansas, El Dorado Springs and Jefferson City, Missouri, Chatham, Illinois and Thorntown, Indiana where we are tonight. Our plan has been to spend fewer than 250 miles on the road each driving day and as often as possible have two night layovers. This has worked well and kept us on schedule for our next commitment. There were some one night stops that we are now thankful for due to the weather that followed us. Our stop in Chatham put us about five minutes outside Springfield, Illinois, the state capitol and home of Abraham Lincoln. We did a driving tour of the city on Sunday. Most everything one would have liked to visit was closed, but we got a pretty good look at the city. One of the places we both put on our lists of places to visit was a Gas Station Museum on Route 66. We drove to the museum but were disappointed to see that it was not open on Sundays. From the chain link fence we were able to see a lot of familiar items from our youth. There was a small building on the property which was obviously a gas station built in the fifties. That building may have been the centerpiece of the museum. However, there was a new larger building that was obviously a newer gas station with service bays that housed gasoline pumps that could be seen through the windows and who knows what else. We were both a bit disappointed that we could not get into the buildings and explore the museum. Had we only known we would have altered our stop plans so we could have been there when the museum was open.

Thorntown, Indiana is just northwest of Indianapolis, Indiana. Most people would go into Indianapolis and visit the speedway. We are not really interested in the speedway. In fact, we are on a track that will take us through Elkhart, Indiana where our coach and millions of others were built. We intend to visit the plant where Damon builds the Astoria as well as to visit the RV/MH Museum in Elkhart. Stay tuned for the details of that visit.


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