Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

There is always a way.  Keep that in mind when you travel.  When you have little time off (say, a long weekend), and many things you want to do it’s easy to get worked up when things don’t go exactly to plan.  In the Tour of America blog I always emphasized the importance of flexibility, because only by being flexible could we deal with the many unexpected events that travel threw at us.

In other words, we had a choice:  we could go through life on the road constantly being disappointed by things … things we couldn’t do, things that went wrong, things that made life a little harder … or we could roll with the punches, think creatively, and look for alternatives.  “Always look on the bright side of life.“  This has been particularly applicable to our overnight stays lately.  To get to the places we wanted to be, we’ve had to work a little outside the box.

On Monday we drove from Cortez CO down through the Navajo Nation on Rt 491 about 100 miles to Interstate 40.  As drives go, Rt 491 is not especially fantastic but it is not bad. The Navajo Nation is sparsely settled, with a few small towns that hold most of the population.  Along the road you’ll see scattered homes and small farms, and almost every home has a traditional hogan beside it.

dsc_2814.jpgIf you look closely you might see small hand-lettered signs for “Indian Frybread” or other items for sale, but it’s not until you reach I-40 that the big-time tourist traps start to appear.  There are several along I-40, including Geronimo’s, Chee’s, and Indian City.  You can get authentic Navajo rugs and other crafts in these places, but beware … if you see a rug (not a wall hanging) that costs less than $200, it’s probably not a true Navajo rug.  They are meticulously hand made and quite expensive, even in the small sizes.  $600 for a 3×2 rug is not uncommon, if the quality is high.

Our goal for the day was Petrified Forest National Park.  For drive-by park visitors, this has to be one of the most convenient in the USA.  You just exit I-40 and there you are at the Visitor Center.  The entire park is a drive-through, with pull-outs or parking lots at all the interesting spots.  Almost all of the parking lots are big enough for any RV.  If you have a full day, you can putter down the 28-mile road, stop at half a dozen good places, and exit the park at the southern end with time to spare.  That puts you on Rt 180 which brings you northwest to I-40 again.

dsc_2885.jpgThere is a little hiking to be done in Petrified Forest.  We’ve done most of the hikes before, but somehow managed to miss the “Long Logs” and “Agate House” trails from the museum/visitor center at the south end of the park, so we did those this time.  Both are well worth the short walk (about 3 miles in total on level ground), but don’t be surprised if there’s a strong breeze.  There’s not much to block the wind here, and it seems to be windy more often than not.

Along those trails are the best concentrations of the beautifully agatized ancient pine trees that give this park its name.  You’ll also see a partially restored home (dating from about 1100 AD) made from blocks of petrified wood — that’s “Agate House.”

When you see all of the incredible and colorful petrified logs, the temptation to pick up a tiny piece as a souvenir is strong — but don’t do it!  dsc_2886.jpgThe park is amazing because people have been restrained enough not to loot the logs, and so they are still lying there at your feet as if you were the first person to discover them.  Besides, the fine for taking a piece, no matter how small, starts at $325, and every visitor to the park gets a “snitch sheet” for the express purpose of turning you in to the authorities!  (If you want a big chunk, wait till you get up Rt 180 to the town of Holbrook, and you’ll find “Bob’s” has an incredible amount of legally-collected petrified wood for sale.)

There’s more to the park than just petrified wood, too.  You’ll find some fantastic concentrations of petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, and the remains of a small Ancient Puebloan settlement, called Puerco Pueblo.

dsc_2842.jpgFor RV’ers, the minor challenge of Petrified Forest National Park is that there is no campground anywhere in the area.  You have two choices: just drive through and continue to your destination elsewhere, or spend the night at one of the two large gift shops at the southern entrance of the park.  Overnight parking there is free there, but if you want them to turn the electricity on you need to buy something in the store.  Since there is no traffic in or out of the park at night, it’s beautifully quiet for sleeping.

That’s where we ended up for the night on Monday.  On Tuesday we towed the Airstream back into the park for a second shot at some of the places, then had lunch in the Airstream, and finally departed to the west. I’ll describe our next stop, and the dodge we had to invent to make a national park visit possible, in tomorrow’s blog.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine