By the time I finally got to Petrified Forest National Park, it felt long overdue. The park had been stalking me for years, showing up in the books I was reading, the movies I was watching, the podcasts I was listening to. It was everywhere, jumping around on the edges of my periphery trying to get me to pay attention to it, to actually visit.
“Fine,” I said, when I started planning this year’s birthday trip. “I’ll go to Arizona.”
I’d been thinking about the Petrified Forest since I drove past it on a cross-country road trip a few years ago. It felt like fate when I got there, like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Until a pronghorn walked across the road and I reached for my camera and realized it wasn’t there.
“No,” I said to the pronghorn. “Not fucking possible.”
But it was. I’d left the camera on the bed of my cabin, more than hour behind me. I stared at the pronghorn as it pranced across the road, cautious of me and my rental, then drove through the park, stopping a handful of times to gaze at the place I’d been dreaming about for four years before heading back to Flagstaff to get my camera and explore a few parks closer to my cabin.
I went back the next day, early.
“Ok,” I told myself. “This one’s for real.”
And it was.
There’s a way I laugh when I’m delighted by a park, a very specific sort of cackle that comes out of me. It’s involuntary and uncultivated, but it exists and I have noticed it escaping from me in moments of awed delight. I don’t know where it came from or when it started, but it’s there, my National Park-induced cackle.
It’s the sound I made when I scampered down the hill into the backcountry of Petrified Forest National Park, mud sticking to my boots, a swirling sort of mist making the day feel eerie and empty. It’s the sound I made over and over again as I got deeper into the park, as the colors changed from red to blue and back again. It’s the sound I made almost every time I got out of the car and it’s the sound I made when I looked at the colorful swirl of mud I’d accumulated on my boots at the end of the day.
I wish I had more words for the parks, more ways to describe the way they make me feel, the heavy fullness they generate in my heart. I use words like amazing and magical and special a lot when I talk about them and sometimes I feel like a broken record, going on about how this place is amazing over and over again, but it’s true. They’re all amazing, all the parks, the big ones and the littles ones, the ones you’ve heard of and the ones you haven’t.
Petrified Forest National Park is easy to visit if you’re heading east or west on 1-40. It’s on the way, no matter what direction you’re heading and is a beautiful and convenient scenic detour. Plus, this is the only park that includes part of the Mother Road, old Route 66, marked today by a 1932 Studebaker and a line of telephone poles that disappear into a field.
There are several easily-accessed trails, many of them paved, along with opportunities to head into the backcountry and explore off a maintained trail. There’s the petrified wood, of course, which you should not remove from the park, and some incredible desert landscapes as well as a few tasty historical morsels involving the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Park Service and Fred Harvey and his girls.
Admission into Petrified Forest National Park is $20 for 7 days. The park is open every day of the year expect Christmas Day. During the busy season (June-September), the park is open 7 a.m. – 6 p.m., and 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. the rest of the year.