Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Off the Beaten Path Hikes in Petrified Forest National Park

Want to experience the wilder, quieter side of a National Park?  Previously this required a long hike or backpacking trip.  But an innovative program at Petrified Forest National Park called Off the Beaten Path Hikes gets you off the paved sidewalks and away from the crowds in routes of just 2-8 miles. 
This is Off the Beaten Path--no trail, no other people.
The future of dayhiking—routes not trails.*
Routes differ from trails in that they are unmarked and require navigation skills.  Don’t expect signs at the trailheads either.  Pick up directions at the visitor centers, or get them online.  Following these routes read like a treasure hunt “from the spot where the tree is located, follow the drainage west…” Picking your own path and backtracking (when you find you went the wrong way) take extra time, but in return you will discover hidden treasures. 

The payoff
Off-trail exploration is a most welcome opportunity for the visitor seeking a quieter experience. I saw no one else Off the Beaten Path.  Instead, there was more nature— pronghorn, jackrabbit, and only flower I saw were all Off the Beaten Path.
At first these looked like animatronic pronghorns..
Until they showed up around the next bend and bolted off when they saw me.
Routes also provided connections with NPS park history—old roads and trails built in the 30’s make up two routes.

The Routes
In late February, I hiked four of the six described routes on a two day trip to Petrified Forest.  Because they were short, there was still time to hike all the paved interpretive trails as well.

Jasper Forest Road (First Forest)- 2.5 miles round trip
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the Jasper Forest Road in the 30s but it was closed in the 60s. 
Traces of the old road.
In little over a mile, stand at the base of Eagle Rock, which was first described by John Muir.  This route has the most colorful and plentiful petrified wood, plus the John Muir tie-in, and thus clearly wins out as a favorite.
The Jasper Forest wood is mind-blowingly colorful.
Onyx Bridge- 4 miles round trip
Follow Lithodendron Wash into the Painted Desert Wilderness to find a concentration of 210 million year old petrified logs in the so-called Black Forest.  I got all excited when the description mentioned that one of the landmarks would be a “large living tree in the wash” but I never did find it.  Still, this is a beautiful area for wandering around.
Onyx Bridge.
Martha’s Butte- 2 miles round trip
Martha’s Butte (right) and Walker’s Stump (left)
Petroglyphs mark this special spot.
Historic Blue Forest Trail- 3 miles round trip
Originally built in the 30s by the CCC, they are not kidding when they say this is for adventurous hikers.  It’s steep and exposed, but the views are worth it.  And no one has to know if you butt-scoot/crabwalk down the steep parts. The guide for this one is the most detailed and gets bonus points for including geology notes.
Steep. Don't slip.
Petrified wood.
Oh the colors!
Off the Beaten Path Hikes provide a wonderful compliment to the paved interpretive trails at Petrified Forest.  Do the other trails first to learn from the interpretive signs about the local geology and history, then go Off the Beaten Path to see more and test your route-finding skills.
Even though it wasn’t on the OFBP list, the Long Logs trail was deserted and seemed to be overlooked. It was my favorite of the interpretive loops.

*The Trail Show Podcast refers to “routes not trails” being “The future of thru hiking”  Hopefully they won’t mind expanding this phrase to dayhiking as well.

More Information

Off the Beaten Path Petrified Forest Site

Ask for a paper copy of the directions (including a topo map) for each route from the visitor centers or the Painted Desert Inn. They also have plant identification information. YAY!
springparsley (Cymopterus spp.)
You may see other footprints, and sometimes the footprints diverge and lead you astray.  So constantly be engaged with routefinding and don’t let your mind wander.  GPS coordinates are provided for some of the routes, but are not a substitute for using your brain and paying attention.

Traditionally protecting the park is done by keeping people on the paved paths.  Going off trail in a national park requires you take on extra responsibilities.  The NPS still asks that you stay on the trail in fragile areas where footprints would be an eyesore.  Do your part and respect all posted signs.  Use good judgement when traveling off trail through sensitive terrain.  All it takes is one careless hiker to leave visible footprints across the fragile badlands to spoil the view for other visitors.

It should go without saying, but leave all petrified wood where you find it.  Yes, even that little piece that you’re sure no one will notice. 


  1. I hiked routes a lot when I worked at Anza Borrego years ago. Lots of dry washes and mountains without trails. It felt great to navigate through the desert without signs (or very many people, back then).

    1. Thanks, Lynn. Oh Anza Borrego-- what a cool place!

      Using navigation skills sure makes me feel like I'm seeing more out there.

      BTW I'm heading back to Montana mid-April, so maybe we can go hiking again. :)

  2. Awesome! In Florida we just called it bushwhacking...but no bushes...route finding is a pretty good alternative!

    1. Haha--yes few bushes here too. Don't miss the bushes that whack back, either! :)