Exploring Arizona’s Painted Desert

As I mentioned in the last post that although we were gobsmacked at the beauty of the Painted Desert (we were in the section that’s in part of Petrified Forest National Park), we took things to the next level by joining some rangers for a hike down into the badlands. Just to refresh your memories, here is what it looks like from the rim at around 5700’…

…and here we go, dropping down into the washes between the bentonite hills.

Bentonite is a generic term for these fine-grained eroded hills, composed of different minerals which give them a variety of colors. The thing that’s important to remember about walking on bentonite is that when it gets wet, it turns to snot! There is no nicer term I can think of to describe the consistency, but it’s slippery, heavy, and clingy… and we would not want to try this in the rain!

Among the bentonite and scrub brush, we also found lots of beautiful mica-like gypsum.

You’re not allowed to collect any rocks or petrified wood in the national park, and we obeyed the rules… but of all the neat rocks we saw I found gypsum (which came in different colors) was the most tempting.

As we meandered around the badlands the rangers showed us a surprise – a hidden pond in the desert!

As the pond was drying at the edges the mud cracked and took on strange patterns.

At one time this whole area (elevation 5400′) was covered by fresh water, and we found plenty of evidence in the form of small shells from freshwater organisms.

And the inundation is what caused the wood in this area to petrify. Petrification starts when an organic material is saturated with dissolved minerals, and the minerals in this area came from volcanic ash. The process takes a very loooooong time as you can imagine, and eventually the minerals replace the original material (with few more steps and lots more time) and then: ta da! You have petrified wood.

Petrified wood

In this part of Petrified Forest National Park a lot of the petrified wood is a dark color, which indicates the presence of magnesium. As you’ll see in the next post, the petrified wood in the southern part of the park displays more and brighter colors. Where the wood started to decompose before petrification began, crystals formed in the voids creating beautiful sparkles.

We thoroughly enjoyed our hike and the company of the ranger couple who led it – they shared a wealth of information and made this first day of our visit really special.

Caverns, Tombstone and the Painted Desert

We spent a day visiting Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns State Park – which was pretty interesting, but they absolutely do not allow cameras in the caverns… which, for me, is almost a deal-breaker. For $120 they offer occasional opportunities for photographers, but I didn’t need pictures of stalactites that badly… so you’ll just have to use your imagination and the link above to see what it’s all about. Discovered in 1974 by two cavers, they spent quite a few years working with the land owners and the state to establish adequate protection for the caverns so they wouldn’t be spoiled by vandals or thieves. It’s now a pristine state park for all to enjoy, and they have taken GREAT pains to preserve these beautiful caverns. Measures included several “air lock” type doors to protect the cavern’s high humidity from the arid desert air. Visitors walk under a light water mist as they enter, and walkways have high curbs – all to minimize the introduction of lint from people’s clothing. Apparently, lint can provide food for undesirable microbes in a cavern system, and it’s the #1 problem for show caves. The place is well worth a visit.

The next day Jim wanted to check out the town of Tombstone, which was largely (as I feared) touristy and ticky-tacky. Tombstone was founded in the late 1800s when a prospector found some silver ore, resulting in the rapid expansion of the town.

The famous shoot-out at the OK Corral happened here, and for a fee you can see it re-enacted (we passed).

The museum in the old County Courthouse was pretty interesting, and the tour into one of the silver mines was fun.

It was time to move on, and we headed northeast to Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert, bisected by historic Route 66 and Interstate 40. The Painted Desert is a vast area, and only a small part of it is within Petrified Forest NP.

Painted Desert is just gorgeous – badlands composed of crumbly rock layers that have been eroded once their capstone of basalt crumbled. Various minerals give the bentonite hills their different colors.


The park has preserved the Painted Desert Inn along the rim road – it was once a roadhouse that provided dining and lodging for people traveling on Route 66.

Painted Desert Inn

Of course I spotted the display showing the various local plants and minerals that the native people used to dye wool…

But the absolute highlight of our time in the Painted Desert was a ranger-guided hike down into those badlands…

…the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Saguaro National Park – Tucson

Because “C” is for “cactus”… we wanted to see more. So we moved to another part of Arizona, closer to Tucson, and spent a nice long day hiking around the east side of Saguaro National Park. Saguaro NP is unusual since it’s a wild place so close to a city, and it’s split into two pieces – one on each side (east and west). The west side is at a lower elevation so it’s warmer and the cactus grow bigger, but we were closer to the east side so that’s where we headed. We got lucky and found a ranger-led hike – always a perfect way to learn a lot about a new place.

We learned about the fishhook barrel cactus that, in this area, tend to lean to the southeast. With the unusual amount of precipitation Arizona had seen recently, the cactus soaked up lots of water… and what happens when you drink too much?? Yep – you keel over.

We learned about some of the other types of cactus such as hedgehog, and some varieties of cholla like this beautiful purple staghorn cholla.

Prickly pear, staghorn cholla, and saguaro cactus with mesquite trees

After the ranger hike we headed off on our own to sample the rabbit’s warren of trails. Beautiful views!

We found a cactus wren – which makes its nest in the saguaro…

…and another crested saguaro!

Crested saguaro

We found a trail crew making some improvements pretty far out on the trails, and Jim fell in love with their nifty motorized carts with tractor treads. Good thing the crew kept the keys safe.

We hiked about 10 miles around the park that day even though it was a little toasty for us – temps in the 80s! Even this roadrunner looked hot, but maybe that’s just my imagination.

We had a great day among the saguaros and mesquite… and wished we had time to check out the west side of the park. Another item for “next time”…

Last Day at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Cruising through the town of Ajo on our way back to the park we spotted one of the adorable Gambel’s quail darting across the road – too fast to get a photo, but it was fun to see one with its little plume bobbing. We spotted a number of other birds unique to the region as well – gila woodpeckers, phainopepla (try and say that three times fast), cactus wren, and roadrunners. I didn’t bring the long lens so it was hard to photograph many of them, but they were a treat to see.

Another rare find was a “cristate” or “crested” saguaro cactus – no one could tell us what causes the unique growth.

The more we explored, the more we returned to the ranger station to ask questions. It was fun to learn about things like why saguaro arms sometimes droop – it’s caused by cold temperatures causing cellular damage where the arm joins the main body, followed by rain or snow. The cactus drinks up the extra water and the increased weight of the arm(s) can’t be supported by the damaged joint(s). The upturn at the end of the arm signals new growth.

Some of the drooped arms made a cactus look like a person gesturing… such as “honey, please…”

…or the ballerina.

Another favorite desert plant was the ocotillo – a large shrub (not a cactus) that looks like a bunch of sticks. If it gets moisture it will quickly sprout leaves all over its branches, as well as a red blossom on the tip. When water is scarce it drops its leaves and hunkers down waiting for moisture again. It’s an interesting survival adaptation.


We bounced along a 4WD park road that runs right along the US-Mexican border. Besides the checkpoints on the main roads, we saw a few border patrol officers and some sensor emplacements to monitor the border. Interesting.

Part of the border barrier

This part of the park had some abandoned mines, and we hiked in to see one that mined (primarily) copper, given the color of the rocks nearby.

We left a lot more that begs to be explored, so we’ve added Organ Pipe to our list of places to return to… a beautiful part of the Sonoran desert.