Exploring Painted Forest National Park’s Backcountry

The route through Jasper Forest follows an old roadbed into a wonderland of geology and petrified wood/NPS file

While you get a great sense of the petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona by sticking to the main road and its overlooks, walking away from those areas takes you not only deeper into the park but closer to the colorful badlands and their stone wood.

Park staff can even direct you to areas you can explore on foot and which will lead you through areas of spectacular scenery, geological wonders, and fields of wild grasslands and petrified wood.

What started in 2014 as an opportunity to give visitors access to new areas of the park has expanded into eight Off the Beaten Path guides that visitors can request in the visitor centers. The guides provide a suggested route through and to specific locations within the park.

Some of the hikes follow old roadbeds, relics from a time when the park allowed vehicles to drive through the petrified wood deposits, while others take visitors into the wild badlands of the painted desert. One of the hikes follows the remains of a trail constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The hikes vary in distance and difficulty with the shortest being four miles and the longest eight-and-a-half.

The hikes are available year-round, though weather and moisture can make it more difficult to cross washes and riverbeds. If hiking in warm weather, it is recommended that you start early and bring plenty of water. Several times per year the park offers the opportunity to join a ranger on some of these adventures. Check the website for dates and times or call 928-524-6228 ext. 238.

As with all areas within the park these are protected spaces. The park thanks visitors for practicing leave no trace and leaving everything as they found it.

Ask for the routes at park visitor centers. Route finding skills will be used and distances are approximate. Remember that you must be parked safely and legally.

Here’s a glance at the trails:

Billings Gap

This 3-mile (4.8 km) hike takes you to a great viewpoint of the Billings Gap area between Blue Mesa and the landform to the east. This hike follows the steep edge of Blue Mesa, and offers views of badlands to the east, and also the broad grassy valleys to north and south. The badlands’ blues, purples, grays and whites seem to shift throughout the day and with the seasons. The summer monsoon adds a touch of green vegetation and wildflowers.

The Blue Forest Trail

The Blue Forest Trail was constructed between 1934 and 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which connected the lower and upper Blue Mesa roads. In 1955 the trail and the lower road were closed and replaced by the Blue Mesa Loop Trail. In 2013 the Blue Forest Trail was re-established for adventurous hikers. The trail connects the main park road at the Tepees area to the paved Blue Mesa Loop Trail. It is accessed from the Blue Mesa Loop Road.

The 3-mile (4.8 km) round trip Blue Forest Trail winds through colorful blue and white badland hills. It offers a new view at every turn, and both the foreground and background hold your interest at every step. It gives the hiker a bit of history, a lot of scenery, an intimate look at petrified wood being exposed by erosion, and with the help provided here, a short geology lesson. Through the combination of these elements, the Blue Forest Trail exemplifies the essence of Petrified Forest National Park.

Dead Wash Overlook Hike

This 4-mile (6.4 km) round trip hike will take you through the grassland, over the edge of a bluff east of the main park road, past Black Forest petrified wood, and out to an overlook with a broad view to the east and south across the Dead Wash drainage. It involves scrambling up and down boulders into washes, and is considered a moderately difficult hike.

First Forest Point

Your adventure will begin in the parking lot at the Jasper Forest overlook and will end with a spectacular view atop a prominent mesa. Along your 2.1-mile (3.4 km) round trip route you will see giant sandstone boulders, and spectacular sparkling petrified wood. For the keen observer/adventurer you may even stumble upon a few seldom seen petroglyphs.

In the 1890s and early 1900s this area was called “First Forest.” This is the first stop for early tourists who came by wagon from the train depot at Adamana. What a spectacular introduction to the eroded and still eroding petrified wood that had been entombed in sandstone for millions of years. The geology and fossils (yes, the petrified wood is a fossil) that you will enjoy along the way are about 217 million years old.

Jasper Forest Hike

This 2.5-mile (4 km) round trip hike into Jasper Forest along an old 1930s road is a nice stroll through an incredible garden of petrified wood. This area was originally called “First Forest” because it was the first collection of petrified wood that travelers encountered when they came by wagon from the Adamana train station. The road within Jasper Forest was added later for car traffic to Eagle’s Nest Rock. A once popular destination, Eagle’s Nest Rock was a large, solitary hoodoo found within an amphitheater of colorful badlands. After the road was closed, it was allowed to erode away.

Onyx Bridge Hike

This 4-mile (6.4 km) round trip hike takes you to a dramatic example of petrified wood eroding out of the Black Forest Bed of the Chinle Formation. The Triassic conifer tree, known as Onyx Bridge, is one of the many preserved logs in the Black Forest. These logs and the geologic layer in which they are found in are about 210 million years old.

Red Basin Clam Beds Hike

The Red Basin is a fossil-rich area part of the land within the 2004 boundary expansion of Petrified Forest National Park. Along this 8.5-miles (13.7 km) round trip hike you will see petrified wood, petroglyphs, unique erosional formations such as hoodoos, vibrantly colored badlands deposited over 215 million years ago, and fossil clam beds.

Wilderness Loop

This 7-mile (11.3 km) round trip hike takes you to several petrified “forests” eroding out of the Black Forest bed in the Petrified Forest Member of the Chinle Formation. These logs and the geologic layer in which they are found in are about 210 million years old.

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