Where land meets the sky, where bare earth is hidden between sheets of grasslands, and where color is born out of the land, that is the Painted Desert. The land spreads in the area southeast of the Grand Canyon and northeast of Phoenix; it's to the right of Flagstaff, taking the 40 out. Technically, when you visit, you will go to the Petrified Forest National Park, entering a long road from one end or the other.
As you travel along this road, there are various stopping points, some with short trails and some just with lookout points. What is amazing is that, driving through the area, all you will see is grass and maybe a couple of the pretty rocks and dirt. So when you get off and look, it's like you're in a secret land. Sometimes it is colored in red, etched against all the space leading to the horizon. Sometimes it is white, decorated like ancient stone.
I was entranced by the Painted Desert from the first time that I heard its name, in class in 4th grade. I didn't visit, however, until about eight years ago, and my second visit wasn't until this past weekend. It is a gorgeous place of color, completely incapable of being photographed. No picture can ever grasp what it is like to stand there. All colors seem pale in pictures and all sense of space is lost. The first time I visited, I don't remember taking the Blue Mesa Trail; it's possible that it wasn't set up yet, but I don't know.
This trail takes around 45 minutes, and it is absolutely one of the best parts of the park. You descend a short distance into a land of purple and white hills. They look soft, like piles of powder, but are in fact stone, if soft stone. There are cracks in this stone, like cracks in cement: when it rains, the rain absorbs into the hills until they're full and it drains out through the bottom (or something like that). That's how you end up with the lovely, miniature dry river beds all around the hills.
It was about 90 or so degrees when we arrived at the park around one. We had our picnic lunch and got off at the first few stops, and by the time we got to the Blue Mesa Trail, the clouds were settling in, the wind was gathering, and the rain was beginning far off on the horizon. Translation: the weather was perfect for a nice little walk, even if it was quite windy.
It's like you're walking in another land or in an artist's sculpture, formed out of clay and painted with pastel colored pencils. You look in awe at everything. What a shade of deep purple. What beautiful tops of white. What wonderful sheltered, open space. In a way, it's better than the Grand Canyon: you have to be in good shape to for a long hike there and we're all used to seeing pictures of it, but this feels so very unique and personal.
The Painted Desert is one of my favorite places. The sky seems so big and the earth so delectable. There is always something to look at, and none of it is the same.
And oh, yes, here are some petrified wood stumps. The petrified wood is what the park is all about, after all, though as an Arizonan, petrified wood just isn't as interesting to me as it might be to someone else. I've always owned at least a few pieces of it (and not the boring polished kind, either).
The area is also known for fossils, so some of the stores around sell fossils and the like. On the way home, I stopped to help a young dinosaur out of its shell. Cute little thing.