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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Petrified Forest

Exploring the area around Petrified Forest National Park, Larry Lindahl shows how this unique environment is a cornucopia for photographers

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Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona provides a beautiful variety of imagery, from buttes, ravines and mesas to plains, peaks and vistas. With a prehistoric past, you'll find layers of texture from the crystal forest and juniper trees, as well as intense colors. Above: With iron, manganese and carbon embedded in quartz interiors of petrified logs, the Crystal Forest is rich in texture.

In a land of blue mesas and crystal forests, Petrified Forest National Park celebrates a colorful primordial past. Here, beneath the northern Arizona sun, rainbow-colored stone logs reveal translucent beauty below hills of multihued clay.

The patterns and shapes of Blue Mesa.
Petrified Forest features a lunar landscape of soft clay hills and multicolored canyons, 100-mile vistas and stirring evidence of a complex past. You'll find traces of Triassic-period swamps with gigantic trees where dinosaurs and prehistoric crocodiles lived 225,000 million years ago. Fossils of carnivorous reptiles, delicate ferns and fields of fallen trees emerged from the eroded soft soil and were transformed long ago into one of the world's largest concentrations of petrified wood.

Hiking trails inside the 135,000-acre park are easily accessible from a 28-mile road tying together the narrow north-to-south-oriented park. The trails meander from 0.5 miles to over three miles across vistas, into canyons walled in dusty zebra stripes, or through grasslands and dry washes.

Petrified Forest is best navigated from north to south to take advantage of photo opportunities among the stone logs at golden hour. The last two stops should include the impressive inner-canyon trail at Blue Mesa. And on the way to the southern gate, stop at the Crystal Forest Trail for a rewarding sunset finale.

Unlike most national parks, Petrified Forest closes at sunset, varying from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., depending on the time of year. Visitors must be in their cars heading out of the park at closing time, and federal law strictly prohibits the removal of any petrified wood.

Gates are locked until 7 a.m. from March through October, and until 8 a.m. from November through February. There are no campgrounds within the park, no motel rooms and no overnight parking. Backpacking with a free backcountry permit is the exception for overnight stays within the park. The park entrance fee is $10 per vehicle, and it's good for seven days.

Spring weather can be temperamental. At elevations averaging 5,400 feet, snowfall is possible. Overnight temperatures drop near freezing in March and April, with highs in the 60s to 70s.

From Flagstaff, take I-40 east for 116 miles, passing the town of Holbrook to Exit 331. The Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north entrance should be your first stop. Start with the park movie, exhibits and the bookstore. Ask rangers questions as you familiarize yourself with the park layout and hours. A restaurant, open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and gas station beside the visitor center are the only ones in the park.

Nationwide motels in Holbrook are just off I-40, or Route 66-era motels—like the infamous Wigwam Motel—are downtown, about a half hour from the south entrance on Highway 180. Overnight parking is allowed at some gift shops south of the park, and campgrounds are available in the vicinity.


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