Sometimes I get a little excited when I look at the map and I think WE ONLY HAVE FOUR HOURS to drive. And then I do things. Things like deciding to schedule two stops in 1 day, which is waaay more ambitious than it sounds. Of course, as adults, a two hour drive with a 90 min break, followed by another 2 hour drive and 3 hour break seems utterly reasonable. Turns out, children aren’t adults. As soon as Lemon professed her dire need to see the Grand Canyon, I also had a dire need to see the Petrified Forest. So our second stop of the day and lunch, was planned on our way to overnight in Flagstaff. This leg of the trip required me to pass two additional National Park sites, AND Meteor Crater, it was hard, but the deprivation really prepared me for the drive through Utah!
So one of the things I overlooked was that the Petrified Forest requires quite a bit of driving. It’s a large loop that is low speed. Because of this they shut entrance down earlier than expected, as you have to have time to make it through the loop by park closing. We entered at the Painted desert entrance, where there is a nice visitor center and a movie, which we skipped because of time. It was pretty windy that day, so we availed ourselves of the courtyard picnic tables, surrounded on 3 sides by buildings, to have quick sandwiches. The courtyard had lots of samples of petrified wood, including a large log which the kids could climb on and touch. It’s nice to spend some time here because you aren’t really supposed to touch things in the park. The visitor center gave us a map, our Junior Ranger books and had this neat clock set up because Arizona does not participate in Daylight savings time. Pro-Tip: This so works in your favor when you over schedule a day!
Hustling the children back to the car, we began the first leg through the painted desert. It was absolutely gorgeous. My husband actually felt it was the most impressive part of the park though I’m not sure my photography does it justice. You need a much higher quality camera than my cell phone to be able to catch all the subtle but dazzling hues. So many shades of red and pink in the soil and yellow brush, with varied greens, grays and whites of vegetation. The blue of the sky, it was really incredibly breathtaking.
There are lots of overlooks and pull offs, but the first major stop is the Painted Desert Inn. A beautiful historic building that was originally built of petrified wood and local stone, and was a deed issued under the Farm and Homestead improvement Act, filed in 1924 . It operated as an inn and restaurant but is now a museum. In the 1930’s it was restored by the CCC’s who were engaged in building many of the roads and trails in the park and it is one of the great examples of Pueblo Revival Style giving it the current stucco and beam appearance. Lemon, of course, ran straight to the picture of the CCC crew and pointed it out. When she’s a little older we may have to do an entire unit on CCC parks! Inside there is beautiful Zuni art on display. And the day we visited there was a local Jeweler displaying wares for sale. The building has a fascinating history which is also posted on the NPS page.
It was breathtaking scenery but the speed limit ranged from 15-45 mph which was less exciting for the kids who often miss the subtlety of the desert. While we could see a lot of wood from the car, I highly recommend making time to hike. We were a bit tethered because Wild Thing is small. We decided to look at Petroglyph rock, the Agate Bridge, the Crystal Forest and the loop near the final visitor center. Petroglyph rock was neat, but it is a look out. You look down and there are the quarter telescopes to get a closer view. I was glad we had previously seen Petroglyphs, so the children had some familiarity with them, because kids and telescopes is a comedy of errors. I zoomed in, and you can kind of make out some of them.
The Agate Bridge was neat, and is pictured at the top of the post. The signs were very good in this section and explained exactly how petrified wood is formed and what the terrain of this area used to be. This was the point we started having trouble with almost 3 year old Wild Thing. I find that most children have a limited number of in and outs of a car seat before they hit absolute rebellion, and all of the little jaunts to walk a loop were taking their toll. If it had been earlier in the day we could have taken a longer hike, but because the clock was ticking on park closing we had to keep moving. This is an extremely science heavy park that you could a lot of lessons out of as well as fun family adventures.
When we got to the Crystal Forest it was windy enough that Wild Thing was having trouble keeping his body on the ground. So the bigger kids and my husband hiked up to see the impressive collection of wood. Here there were lots of slices and split logs, so you could really see beyond the dusty, stone tree bark! Wild Thing and I had a snack at the car and watched this Crow struggle against the wind to land. He hopped along the wall and mantled against the wind trying to get closer to Wild Thing’s shiny bag of crackers, until we just got back int he car.
We finally made it to the Rainbow Forest and the kids were relieved! We had completed most of the books, and were going to be out of the car for a significant amount of time. There is a movie about the history of the area, which we got most of the way through, it is looped so we caught the second half and then the first. The biggest attraction is the enormous amounts of wood samples spread out behind the center. Again, the bright desert sunshine wrecked havoc on my camera, but you get the gist. These are beautiful logs all sitting near the paved trail, there are two loops a long and a short much like at El Morro, making it really accessible to all people.
The best pictures I got of the wood were in the visitor center, but you should imagine so much of this looked just as brilliant in the outside as well.
One of the hard things was that the kids really wanted a sample of petrified wood. This is very illegal and very harmful. So much has been stolen from this park and harvested before the area became a protected zone.
I think I would like to visit again when the children are older, and more capable of real hiking and can have a deeper understanding of the chemistry that went into the making of these wonders. It was a well earned badge and an excellent stop!