I was in bed, and quickly asleep, at 1900 on Wednesday, to get up at 0130 to drop my wife off at the airport at 0330 for her 0500 flight to Kansas City.
I-17 from Phoenix to Flagstaff, is a major pain the ass: Lots of traffic, with long lines of slow cars blocking the passing lane for mile after endless mile. I would rather circumsize myself with a rusty knife than drive I-17. So, rather than take I-17 and I-40 to the Petrified Forest, I drove an alternate.
From Sky Harbor, I headed east on the Red Mountain Freeway (AZ 202), then north on the Beeline Highway (AZ 87) to Payson. From there you can continue north to Winslow, then east on I-40, or turn east on AZ 260. It’s slow going, on one lane, with no passing zones, through switchbacks, Pine & Strawberry. But east on 260 is a different story: Four lanes most of the way; multiple passing zones otherwise. East it was.
However … Payson’s next door neighbor, the small hamlet of Star Valley, is a well known speed trap: It has three speed cameras, in each direction, in only half a mile. The speed limit is 45. Do 40.
Then it was up over the Mogollon Rim to Heber. All roads I’d been on many times.
From Heber, I headed northeast on AZ 277 for a few miles, before turning north on AZ 377 for many miles of beautiful grassland. There is a ridge that stretches across the middle of the drive, that you can see for 15 miles from north or south. It always fascinates me how small terrain features can be so dominant in otherwise featureless terrain. (For instance, the small hill at Bir Hakeim, during the second Battle of Tobruk in 1942.) After a few miles on AZ 77, just before Holbrook, I turned east on AZ 180, entering the Petrified Forest National Park from the south. The gate was unattended at 0730.
I was a bit concerned, as the park is a fee area, so I stopped at the visitor center for a pass. They did not sell passes, but said not to worry, so after checking out a few displays, I headed up the freshly resurfaced park road to Jasper Point. I was doing two hikes from the Jasper Point trailhead — this one and Jasper Forest Road — but I parked at the south end of the lot to save myself 200 yards of extra effort. Lazy, yes, but far from the laziest I would see the next three days.
The National Park Service has eight “Off the Beaten Path” hikes in the Petrified Forest. Where there are paved trails, as on the Blue Mesa Trail, you are required to stay on trail. But the Off the Beaten Path hikes allow you to wonder to your heart’s content within those designated areas. The Painted Desert is delicate, though, as you will notice from seeing footprints that are many years old, so it is best to stay in available washes, or follow previous hikers’ paths.
It had been eight years since the only other time I had been in the Petrified Forest, when my wife & I did an old-fashioned cross country drive, hitting all the tourist traps like Meteor Crater, Four Corners, Royal Gorge, etc., at the height of the $4.50/gallon gas crisis. (We were on the hook for hotels, etc. so we went anyway. ) We stopped at several OPs, got out for a few minutes at each, and continued on. That’s what most people do. This weekend, however, I saw many who did not even bother to get out of their cars, simply shooting photos out their window!
Like I’ve said before, you have to actually walk terrain to understand and appreciate it.
I quickly realized there are more pieces of petrified wood than you could photograph in a lifetime, even if you only count the attractive hand-size or bigger pieces.
The First Forest Point hike heads south, on an established foot path, through grass, along the bluff, for a quarter mile. It then descends 100 ft. to a small wash, which you follow northwest for .75 miles to a larger wash, passing a cement tank, and crossing a jeep trail along the way. The route then follows a larger wash 200 yards south, before turning west into yet another wash for a half mile. You would not think there would be samples of petrified wood in the washes, some surely weighing a ton or more, but they are everywhere. Really, you should expect it, as boulders wash downstream too. Water has more force than you think!
There are also many beautiful specimens closer to to the base of the mesas and buttes. The petrified wood in the Jasper Point area has lots red, purple and blue, but not so much ochre. There were some brilliant pure white samples — “bleached” as another hiker put it — that from a distance looked like the shattered core of recently deceased trees of the type I saw only last week in Miller Canyon.
I had basically followed the NPS-recommended route for the first 1.75 miles, but I took the “wrong” drainage up the First Forest Point mesa. It was easy: Even casual hikers should have no problem.
I had seen many deer tracks in the washes, and in wandering about the mesa found several piles of deer scat, and even some antlers. When I reached the “end” of the route, there was a good view back towards Jasper Point. (The butte to its west covering most of Jasper’s frontage.) But by climbing down a few feet, the vista really opened up!
From the OP, I simply backtracked to the trailhead.
GPS File: First_Forest_Point
Distance: 5.24 mi.
AEG: 335 ft.
Time: 1h 57m