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.