Terra Galleria Photography

Off the Beaten Path in Petrified Forest National Park’s North Wilderness

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Petrified Forest National Park at first doesn’t appear to be prime hiking territory since the park features relatively short trails that lead to areas of concentrated petrified wood. Because of the open terrain in many of them, it can be difficult to exclude other people from your photos. However, if you are willing to venture off trail, there is much more to discover.

The northern region of the park forms its largest wilderness area. Without maintained trails, it offers plenty of solitude. The petrified wood here is younger and darker than the specimens found in the more frequently visited regions of the park, hence the name Black Forest. I began the journey from the Wilderness Access Trail that starts left of the Painted Desert Inn. Since it is visible from the Black Forest, I used it as a useful visual landmark to find my way back. Even a short hike down is rewarding, as you walk through badlands brilliantly colored by iron oxides, away from the crowds.

Once I reached the bottom, the developed trail gave way to a user trail leading to Lithodendron Wash, a large drain through the Black Forest. Although the wash was mostly dry, it was unexpected to find water running through the desert, and I could imagine the wide flow during a flash flood.

While there is much room to explore and make your own discoveries, the destination for most day hikers is the Onyx Bridge, a 30-foot-long log spanning a small wash. Unlike the Agate Bridge which is supported by a concrete reinforcement, the Onyx Bridge’s surrounding are wild, however the knee-high span isn’t all that impressive.

This off-trail hike is about 4 miles round trip with a 300-foot elevation gain on the way back. The Onyx Bridge is about 0.2 miles northwest from the second bend of Lithodendron Wash along a side drainage. If you are interested in finding the bridge, you should download the hand-out with a map and directions. I recommend using GPS, because although I arrived in the vicinity of the bridge by following directions, it was the GPS coordinates provided on the map—N35 06.515 W 109 47.531 (NAD83)—that enabled me to eventually locate it. During my entire hike, I did not meet a single person once I left the established trail.

I was happy to find the bridge, but as is often the case, the journey through wild terrain turned out to be more rewarding than the destination. Being able to wander anywhere you see something that piques your interest is a treat. Unlike desert parks with delicate cryptobiologic soil or mountain parks with fragile alpine tundra vegetation and wildflower-covered subalpine meadows, Petrified Forest’s ground is quite resilient and for that reason, the National Park Service encourages off-trail hiking. As of this writing, the park’s home page is entitled “A Place for Discovery” and Off the Beaten Path Hikes are prominently featured. By the way, another example of the lessened restrictions in the park is that unlike most, they do not prohibit pets anywhere!

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