Toby and I flew into Flagstaff for our 2 1/2 week Northern Arizona adventure. We are heading to the northern terminus of the Arizona Trail in a couple of days, but first we decide to hit another national park and overnight in Petrified Forest NP. We drive east out of Flagstaff and watch the landscape change from pine forest to deep desert. We see rain storms off in the distance and think “huh- not what we expected” but the monsoon season here has been unusually wet so it’s not too surprising.
We get to the ranger station and inquire about backcountry permits. She says “sure, where do you want to go” and we shrug, unsure, and ask for suggestions. I’m always so curious about the different iterations of rangers. Some help a lot with trip planning. This one seems less prepared for that but does pull out a multi-page printed route description with pictures. There’s no set trail- we’d just follow a series of landmarks. We decide that sounds good and get a permit for one night in the desert.
We drive to our parking area and this landscape is wild. I’ve never been in badlands before- so many mounds of all colors of dirt and rocks. I can’t wait to get down in there and explore. As we’re arranging our gear a volunteer ranger wanders over to check in with us. He seems to size us up a little and feel satisfied that we basically know what we’re doing. He says the storm in the distance could mean water in the wash. We reassure him that we know not to camp in washes and he seems relieved.
We strap on our packs and descend 300m from the trailhead. There is a faint trail but we are mostly using a compass/directional cues and looking for landmarks that match the pictures. We find the remnants of an old bridge first, then hike across an open flat to a large rock covered in ancient petroglyphs. Then we make our way across another flat to Lithodendron Wash, the point we have to pass before we are allowed to camp.
At the wash we notice a huge rainstorm [seriously, HUGE. —Toby] in the distance and cannot quite tell which way it’s going. We cross and climb up into a drainage. Then we are surrounded by hills and the storm looks like it’s about to be right on top of us. I suggest a possible campsite in the drainage but Toby isn’t sure. I ask what he would do if he were alone. He says hike his ass off out of this drainage and hope there is camping soon after. Okay, I say, and we plow through, climbing over rocks and through washes and feeling like we are back in Big Bend Ranch State Park where we did so much of this. [The storm is our primary focus for obvious reasons, but wow, there’s also a ton of petrified wood all around us. —Toby]
We get out of the drainage and the storm looks even closer, is throwing some big lightning, and now we are totally exposed up on a mound with nothing much higher up than our bodies to draw the lightning. I panic a little as I do in lightning storms and start scrambling around for a tent site. We check the route and realize it will take us down off this mound so we keep going. I follow what looks like a path down, which takes us northwest instead of the due north we are supposed to go. Within a few minutes we are able to see that the storm is not coming for us after all and are able to relax on that front. [I am honestly gobsmacked by how quickly the skies changed in just a few minutes. The desert is truly a place of extremes. —Toby] But we are also off-route now and a little frustrated. We are looking for the “twin logs” as a landmark, two unusually long petrified logs on the ground. We wander around for a while and then finally I try to calculate where we would have gone if we had descended the mounds heading directly north. I follow that route for a minute and then there they are. And next to them is a decent enough campsite in case of more storms. Not too high up to attract lightning but not too low in case of flash flooding. Toby pitches the tent while I wander around gathering rocks. The sandstone here means that even huge rocks aren’t that heavy but we pile enough that we think the tent will stay put through the night.
It’s probably 5 pm now. It took us two hours to go two miles with all the stopping to figure out the route and getting off track. We eat dinner and watch the light change as the sun sets. It’s gorgeous here. Weird and wild. We feel a million miles away from anything, which is reinforced by the total silence of no birds or human noise. We are in the tent just as it starts to get dark and I am asleep after reading for 15 minutes max.
In the night we wake up to rain that is pretty steady. Toby worries that the tent is dropping and grumpily gets out to fix it. He is back in the tent for two minutes when he hears a pile of rocks reinforcing the stakes fall and gets out again. [In the rain. Ugh. —Toby] I barely wake up through any of this and sleep well through the night. I have finally figured out how to sleep decently in the backcountry it seems.
We contemplate doing the next five miles of the route in the morning but instead decide to go back the way we came, to give ourselves time to drive through the rest of the park. The return hike takes us only an hour since we actually know where we’re going this time. The 300m climb up to the car winds me badly. Oh right, I think, altitude. Nothing in Illinois ever prepares me for the lack of oxygen at 5000+ feet. But we make it okay, throw our stuff in the car, and then drive down the one main road in the park, stopping at different points to look out at the views of petrified forest and red and blue badlands. I have never seen anything like this in person and I’m so glad we came here.
Around 11 we are on the road back to Flagstaff where we stop at REI for some last-minute supplies and Whole Foods for a quick lunch. Then we drive north to the south rim where we will stay the night before starting the AZT the next morning.