The sound of my alarm going off jolted me awake. I unzipped my sleeping bag and crawled out into the brisk night air. Only a day earlier we had realized that the Petrified Forest allowed wilderness camping. Now, here I was crawling out of my tent and into one of the darkest skies in North America.
I was on the hunt to find that perfect scene of petrified wood and the galactic Milky Way. The scene holding in our present reality a view of two very different worlds. The light from the Milky Way having started its journey towards us and my camera’s lens nearly 50,000 years ago was a veritable youngster when compared to these pieces of petrified timber that had lived on the ancient earth somewhere around 200 million years ago. How unlikely that all three of us would find our way here, sharing this lone piece of desert wilderness.
Going Off Trail
I have visited many parks and have seen the wilderness boundary outlines on various park maps. Most parks frown on people venturing off the trail and with good reason. Visitors can cause massive amounts of erosion and kill slow-growing plant life. With only a few exceptions the Petrified Forest National Park seemingly encourages venturing off-trail. I’m still a little apprehensive about this practice but must admit that I did enjoy the opportunity. I felt like an explorer who in these moments was the first to discover this patch of amazing desert terrain.
My guess is that if the annual visitation at the Petrified Forest climbs too much that this practice might cease. That being said the more popular trails have signs asking visitors to stay on the trail. When I inquired about this practice with one of the rangers he informed me that if a trail doesn’t have a sign then to feel free to explore the area… just leave things where they lie, of course.
When we arrived at the Petrified Forest National Park I was shocked to find out that the park opened every day at 7:00 AM and closed at 7:00 PM. In mid-April, this was long after the sun rose at 5:30 AM and before the sunset at 7:30 PM. I was a little upset that not only was astrophotography out of the realm of possibility but so was a sunrise or sunset. The park service does this to prevent looting or defacement of the historic artifacts. I can very much appreciate that precaution. Enough of our shared history has fallen victim to vandals.
Petrified Forest Camping
I was thrilled to discover that while the park has no campground within its boundaries (one is scheduled to be opened in 2021) they do allow for overnight camping in five wilderness zones so long as the campsite is more than a mile away from the road. The permits are first-come, first-served and the best part is that they are free. Jennifer and I immediately set about getting our Petrified Forest camping permit which requires the typical address, phone number, emergency contact, and license plate number but rather oddly requests shoe size. We chose to explore Zone 4 and asked about how many permits had been issued that day. The ranger informed us that as of now, about 3:00 PM we were the first.
Wilderness Zone 4
Wilderness Zone 4 is found by parking at mile marker 24 on the south end of the park. Jennifer and I strapped on our packs and began our trail-less hike east into the desert wilderness. Immediately we were both shocked by the idea of stepping out onto this heavily eroded terrain. This type of journey goes against the minimal impact type of practices that are implemented when hiking in most parks. I assume that the parks service figures that the terrain here is subject to such heavy erosion that the few adventurous souls (or soles, really) who head into the unknown do little to expedite the situation.
We did our best to not impact the brittle dry crust but it gave way easily underfoot and I immediately realized why the permit form had requested our shoe sizes. We were leaving a very clear trail. If we went missing, following the shoe size might be the easiest way to track us.
The Search for Petrified Logs in Zone 4
We choose Zone 4 because we thought due to its location being relatively near the huge sections of petrified forests that this would be a good area to find petrified logs. There may be some out there in the desert somewhere but we didn’t find them. After meandering aimlessly around the desert for several miles we finally came across some nice ridges of petrified wood that had long ago begun to crumble. These were not the logs that we were looking for but were unique looking ridges. Other than the wood chips we had found in the washes, these ridges were the first pieces of petrified wood we had come across. There were also some nice painted desert mounds that rose up from the flat salt basin like terrain. We decided that this was a good spot to camp and in truth much better than most in this surrounding area.
Finding Petrified Logs in Zone 1
We found out the next day that Zone 1 is actually a better spot to find larger petrified logs. There are even two listed on the wilderness map located just over 1.5 miles into Zone 1 from the Painted Desert Inn which is the parking area for Zone 1. Now we have a reason to return to the Petrified Forest.
The Desert Wildlife
The Petrified Forest is a desert known for rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions all of which tend to be nocturnal. As we had come into the desert to enjoy the sunset, stars, and sunrise I wasn’t looking forward to the possibility of running into any of these native creatures. By camping on this salt flat terrain we made it fairly easy to spot these creatures of the night rather than sneaking up on them in bouldery crevasses or high weeds. For this reason, I really appreciated our chosen flat camping spot on top of one of the crumbling ridges that the badlands area is known for. This terrain gave me peace of mind as I stumbled about in the darkness with my headlamp off as much as possible in order to enjoy the canopy of stars laid out before me.
Quiet as a Cave
The truest surprise of our night in the desert was the deafening quiet. I have spent many nights under the stars next to lakes and streams with terrain covered in trees. These types of environments are tranquil but anything but quiet. The wind stirs the limbs and leaves, while streams wash over rocks and the sounds of countless insects buzz over these life-giving environments. Here in the desolate desert of the Petrified Forest, there are no living trees, no water to be found anywhere and the wildlife does its best to remain silent, otherwise it might be hunted down by the stealthy carnivores of the night. The night here is so quiet that both Jennifer and I commented the following morning that it reminded us of times when we were deep in caves. Places where when you sit perfectly still you can hear the blood coursing through your brain.
This kind of late night exploration isn’t for Jennifer (as there’s sleep to be had) and she quickly returned to the warmth of her sleeping bag. But I explored the dark terrain for several hours before returning to my brief slumber. I was once again destined to be awoken by the screaming alarm clock to watch the sun rise and further explore the wilderness of the Petrified Forest.
A Petrified Sunrise
The sunrise was very nice with not a cloud in the sky. The terrain slowly illuminated but still there was very little life that ventured out. Other than the occasional small swift (a bird) that zoomed by and a noisy raven squawking on a faraway ridge the morning was still. It was a very calming experience. Once the sun was high enough to illuminate the ground I continued my hunt for petrified logs. I walked up and down washed-out creek beds and badland buttes. For over 3 miles in an arching circumference, I rounded our camping spot to no avail. There were no logs to be found.
Leaving Zone 4
I returned once again to the tent for a short nap before we both arose and packed up camp. It was now 9:00 AM and the cold of the night was a distant fond memory. The famous desert heat of the day had started to set in. We made our way quickly back to our truck where we continued our exploration of Petrified Forest National Park.
Thoughts on Petrified Forest Camping
A backpacking and camping trip into the Petrified Forest wilderness isn’t for everyone. Hot days and cold nights with no access to water make this a harsh environment to explore. For those who do choose to venture out into the unknown, desert beauty, gorgeous sunsets, quiet solitude, and remarkable dark skies await. I for one will be back to explore it further in the future when the wood will have aged little, the starlight will have traveled millions of more miles and I will be just as awestruck by this special place and our moment in time.