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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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Painted Desert
From the north entrance, a one-mile drive to Tiponi Point quickly unveils your first view of the burnt-red and orange Painted Desert. Serrated hills of eroding clay, sometimes shimmering with gypsum, ripple away under the enormous sky. The dramatic lighting of a breaking storm will boldly charge the desert with a dark fierceness.

At Tawa Point, a dwarf forest of interspersed juniper trees gives textural contrast to the far views beneath the panoramic sky. Early-blooming wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, among saltbush, Mormon tea and brittlebush, may add a foreground accent. During midday, a polarizing filter can enrich the colors seen from this northeast-facing high point.

Try the Painted Desert Rim Trail, a half-mile hike from Tawa to Kachina Point. This easy walk features more views stretching to the horizon as you meander through wild shrubs, with shoulder-high cliffrose giving off the scent of warm honey.

At Kachina Point, the trail turns around near the historical Painted Desert Inn. This sprawling 1930s-era adobe once hosted travelers along Arizona's Route 66. Here, you can monitor storms protected behind large windows high above the expansive desert floor and faraway Hopi Buttes.

West of the Inn, a trail begins the half-mile ascent into immense Lithodendron Wash and the park's National Wilderness Area. Route-finding skills are vital for backpackers entering the wilderness for overnight camping or day hikers seeking solitude among the petrified wood.

Clear Desert Vistas
The northern end of the escarpment presents five scenic overlooks as the route swings due south. The provocative essence of this landscape is foretold in the successive names of Chinde Point (Navajo for "spirit"), Pintado Point (Spanish for "painted) and Nizhoni Point (Navajo for "beautiful").

Each turnout offers slightly different angles over the broad drainage of Lithodendron Wash coursing across the badlands far below. A telephoto is ideal where the wide-open Painted Desert extends unobstructed to the sparse ridge of the Defiance Uplift, the flat top of Chinde Mesa and then Pilot Rock, rising 6,235 feet, the highest point in the park.

The naked eye can see the 12,633-foot-tall San Francisco Peaks from all five west-facing turnouts. The fourth turnout, Whipple Point, equally showcases the dormant volcano, sacred to Hopi and Navajo Indians. The Peaks break the western horizon 110 miles away and stand majestically draped in snow through late spring.

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