SW Deserts #04 – Whitesands, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest

November 27, 2020  •  5 Comments

MARCH 2020

Desert Southwest #04 – White Sands & Petrified Forest

This is part 4 of a 3,246 mile driving trip we took in early March 2020 to the desert SW of the USA.  On this trip we visited Lone Pine, Alabama Hills and Manzanar all on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains in California, Joshua Tree National Park in California, Tombstone Arizona, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, White Sands National Park also in New Mexico and a quick run through Painted Desert – Petrified forest National Park in Arizona.

This installment is for the last part of the trip where we visited White Sands and Petrified Forest.

Entire Trip map
05 Map 1 - Whole Trip05 Map 1 - Whole Trip

Carlsbad Caverns marked the eastern extent of this trip and the next day we started heading back west toward home. 

Carlsbad Caverns to home
06 Map 9 Carlsbad to Palo Alto06 Map 9 Carlsbad to Palo Alto

Carlsbad to Alamogordo

The drive from Carlsbad to Alamogordo (near White Sands) was only 150 miles so even on 2 land roads was under 3 hours.  Our route had us go north on US-185 but then rather than go all the way up to Roswell and cut across on I-70 we turned west on US-82.  This road is 2 lanes (one each way) and in many regards is similar to RT-66 – except with no towns to speak of.  The first 2/3rds was flat and straight across the desert but then it climbed up into the Lincoln National Forest and got a bit curvier.  And, compared to an interstate it was much more interesting.  It eventually rose up to around 8,700 feet which is not giant but respectable. 

As we climbed, the scrub desert gave way to pine and fir forests and the air got cooler.  But, except for one or two small towns near a ski resort there was not much in the way of civilization which was quite nice.  What made it especially nice was that I-70 (140 miles further north) takes the bulk of the east-west truck traffic.  So, US-82, the road we took, was empty.  In our entire drive until we descended into Alamogordo we didn’t come across any vehicles going our way and only 2 or 3 going the other way.  Now, this is how driving should be.  All in all it was a very pleasant drive.


Alamogordo, with a population of around 30,000 is quite unremarkable.  So, why does that name sound so familiar?  We’ve all heard of the place, but maybe can’t quite recall why it sounds familiar.  Well, the fact that the name translates to “Fat Cottonwood” doesn’t help.  As it turns out, it got its name from the location of the Trinity Test site.  Still drawing a blank?  The Trinity Test site was the location of the first test of the Atom bomb in 1945.  The top secret “Manhattan Project” research site where the bomb was invented is closer to Los Alamos, 350 miles away, to the north of Santa Fe.  “Trinity” was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear device which occurred on July 16, 1945.  The test was conducted about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, on what was then the US Air force Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range but is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.  So, that is why we remember the name Alamogordo.  I guess the folks who built the bomb – or as they called it “the gadget” –didn’t want to be too close to it when they set it off.

For the bomb test, the only structures in the vicinity were the McDonald Ranch House and its ancillary buildings which scientists used as a laboratory for testing bomb components.  A base camp was constructed, and there were 425 people present on the weekend of the test.  The Trinity site is at the north end of base but the city of Alamogordo is right next to the base nearer its southern end.

Speaking of the missile range, route US-70 cuts across the south eastern corner of this facility (and is where the entrance to White Sands National Park is located).  Roughly twice a week, when they test something, they close the highway for an hour or two.  This is usually known in advance and announced in the newspaper, on TV and the radio and I imagine on other medial platforms as well.  It is just one of the things you get used to if you live nearby.

Today the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) has some claim to fame in its own right.  NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia landed on the Northrop Strip at the missile range in 1982.  This was the only time that NASA used WSMR as a landing site for the space shuttle. 

Although not an actual part of the WSMR, next to is Spaceport America.  Spaceport America is an FAA-licensed spaceport directly west of and adjacent to U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range.  This facility is the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport, designed and constructed specifically for commercial use that had not previously been an airport or federal infrastructure of any kind. The site is built to accommodate both vertical and horizontal launch aerospace vehicles, as well as an array of non-aerospace events and commercial activities. Among other tenants, Virgin Galactic is using it as their base of operations.  Spaceport America is owned and operated by the State of New Mexico, via a state agency.

White Sands National park

White Sands National Park is actually in what was part of the Bombing and Gunnery Range approximately 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo. The park comprises the southern part of a 275 sq. mi. field of white sand dunes and is the largest of its kind on Earth.

Like Joshua tree, White Sands was first a National Monument, designated in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover.  It became a national park in 2020 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019.  Wait a minute.  The year 2020 sounds familiar.  Holy cow, that’s just this year!  As we visited in March, I’m not entirely sure if it was a monument or a park when we visited.

The park itself is 145,762 sq. mi. of which 115 sq. mi. are the dunes themselves.  So what’s so special about these sand dunes?  Well I’ll tell you.  Most sand dunes are made of silica sand commonly known as beach sand.  This is the stuff you see along many ocean boundaries, and in various deserts.  However the sand dunes at White Sands are made of Gypsum Crystals.  Regular (non crystalline) gypsum is what they make sheet rock out of so you are probably within a few feet of a bunch of it right from where you are sitting. 

Even though there are many different kinds of sand, such as black or red volcanic sand, Gypsum Crystal ‘sand’ is much different than regular sand.  For one thing, regular sand is usually a muted yellow color whereas Gypsum Crystal sand is blinding white with a bit of a sparkle to it when hit by sunlight.  Another difference is that when you walk on regular sand your feet tend to sink in and if you are ascending a dune, even slide backwards some with each step.  But this sand behaves differently.  When you step on it, it compresses just a bit but is quite solid just below the surface.  Like walking on a concrete slab covered with a half inch of regular sand.  According to the park brochure water holds this vast dune field together. The top couple of inches, having been dried by the sun, are very sand like.  However, it is moist just a few inches below the surface.  It seems the dunes stay moist even during the longest droughts.  This is probably caused by the gypsum crystals becoming water tight when they are moist and there is a bit of weight on them from the couple of inches of loose sand on top.  The moisture acts like a glue causing the gypsum crystals to interlock with each other and become quite solid. 

The depth of gypsum across the entire field is about 30 feet below the bottom of the little valleys between the dunes.  From this level the tallest dunes are about 60 feet high making them quite climbable.  As these dunes are more solid than normal sand dunes they are easy to walk on and are great for sliding down on plastic snow saucers or just a piece of cardboard

About 12,000 years ago, the land within the Tularosa Basin (where the dunes are now) featured large lakes, streams, and grasslands.  Ice age mammals lived by the shores of Lake Otero, one of the largest lakes in the southwest.  The dune field formed about 7,000–10,000 years ago.  It was created when exposed gypsum in the mountains to the west was dissolved by water from rain and glaciers and then eroded into gypsum grains.  These grains were then transported eastward by wind and water runoff into this geographical depression.  As is the case with most sand dunes these blow around a bit as the wind changes but in general they just move back and forth within this area.

When you enter the park from the highway, after stopping at the visitor center for a map, there is a single road leading to the dunes.  This road is paved for a while then becomes a Gypsum Crystal road made up of the “sand” compressed by the daily passing of hundreds of cars.  They do run a grader over it from time to time forming a bit of a ridge along the shoulder so you’ll know where the road actually is, but other than that it’s just the gypsum.  About 6 miles in, the road makes splits into a 3.7 mile loop with large graded parking areas all about. 

White Sands National Park is the most visited NPS site in New Mexico, with about 600,000 visitors each year.  Three picnic areas are available, as well as a backcountry campground with ten sites for overnight camping in the dune field.  Five marked trails totaling 9 miles allow visitors to explore the dunes on foot.  In these cases a trail is a series of flags stuck in the dunes spaced such that from each flag you can see the next flag in each direction.  This works well in the daytime but is a bit more challenging at night. 

After driving from Carlsbad and checking into our hotel in Alamogordo we killed some time in town as we didn’t want to be on those snow white dunes in mid day light.  We left town around 4:30 and headed over to the park where we arrived around 5:00 and got out to the dunes around 5:30.   There were people there but it was not crowded by any stretch of the imagination.  Kids were sliding down the steep slopes on snow saucers or cardboard near the parking areas.  Others were setting out their picnic dinners and one could see the odd form of a hiker out on the dunes.  The wind was calm and there were some high thin clouds struggling to stay intact in the dry air rising off the desert. 

We drove to the far end of the loop and found a trail head.  Grabbed the gear and headed out.  As advertised, walking on the dunes was way easier than, say, the sand dunes in Death Valley.  In the windswept valleys between the dunes the footing was quite solid and some grasses and small scrub bushes were eking out an existence.  At first glance those areas looked like they were covered with vehicle tracks.  But upon closer inspection it was natural ridging due to the winds racing along between the dunes and scouring the bottoms of the little valleys.

Wind ridged valleys between the dunes

For photographic purposes we wanted to put some distance bet Gypsum sand dune #1Gypsum sand dune #1
ween us and the people closer to the parking areas so even though the flags marking the trail are on top of the dunes we walked in these lower valley areas between the dunes.  But, of course that doesn’t give much of a view of the dunes going off into the distance.  So after about a mile or so, we trekked back up to the tops for a look see.  The idea was to take advantage of the sunset over the mountains to the west with the dunes leading off to those mountains.  Not as many puffy clouds as I would have liked but a few could be seen way off over the distant mountains. 

But we were still a bit early for the sunset which provided an opportunity to do some more intimate photography.  Although the plant life was scarce and animal life nonexistent on the dunes, there was some opportunity for exploring form and texture with the camera.

Wind ripples in the sand
Gypsum sand dune with woman in blackGypsum sand dune with woman in black

Dune ridges
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Small peaks of wet sand resist wind
Gypsum sand dune peaksGypsum sand dune peaks

After waiting for the sun to go settle onto the distant mountains, it was time to try for the sunset shots.  Unfortunately the clouds were not really doing much and were too far away anyway and even though we had small flashlights, they would be useless in trying to find the next trail flag once it got dark.  And, as is attested to by many signs it is very easy to get lost in these dunes at night.  So I took a bunch of shots for the heck of it and we started to head back.

The first batch was while the sun was still visible above the horizon and kissing the tops of the dunes warming the color from its normal cool white to mellow amber.

Sun starting to set

Sunset over White Sands #1Sunset over White Sands #1

However shooting into the sun like this is rarely successful for my taste but I figured that things might get a bit more interesting once the sun was below the horizon.  And it did.  Of course once the sun is below the horizon and you enter the blue zone the color cast changes from yellowish to blue.  In this case the sun made the clouds a bit more interesting as well.

sunset over White Sands #3sunset over White Sands #3

Well, now that it was really starting to get dark and we were still a half mile or so away from the parking lot we picked up the pace while we could still make out the flags to guide our way.  But I kept looking over my shoulder to the west to see what was happening with the sunset.  During this time the clouds had started to come in over the mountains and the last rays of the sinking sun caught their underside and lit them up quite nicely.

sunset over White Sands #4sunset over White Sands #4

Just as it became pitch dark, we were close enough to the parking lot to be able to see headlights from cars which was good enough to keep us heading in the right direction and finally made it back to the car without a problem.  As I was shifting my gear into the car another couple came in from the dunes and stopped to say thanks.  Turned out they had hiked in further than we had and had neglected to bring any lights with them.  And, each time I turned around to check out the western sky, they caught sight of my head lamp and thereby could follow along.

If you go to White Sands National Park, check local resources as both the park and U.S. Route 70 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces are subject to closure when tests are conducted at White Sands Missile Range which completely surrounds the park.

Code Talkers Museum, Gallup, NM

After leaving Alamogordo the next day, we continued heading back to the west and spent the night in Gallup, New Mexico.  Gallup has a population of a bit over 21,000 (2010 census).  Most of the population is Native American, with residents from the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes.  Gallup is the most populous city between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, along the historic U.S. Route 66. 

Gallup was founded in 1881 as a railhead for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. The city was named after David Gallup, a paymaster for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad.  During World War II, the city fought successfully to prevent 800 Japanese American residents from being placed in wartime internment, the only New Mexico city to do so.  Gallup is known as the "Heart of Indian Country" or "The Heart of Indians" because it is on the edge of the Navajo reservation and is home to members of many other tribes as well.

We needed a place to sleep somewhat near The Painted Desert – Petrified Forest so that we could get there before the light got too bad and Gallup was the nearest city of any consequence to the parks.  Well, as long as we were in Gallup we looked for something of interest to see and found that there was a WWII “code talkers” museum in the Chamber of Commerce building.  This museum is in an old train depot with a gift shop and meeting room on the first floor and offices plus a small museum containing a collection of memorabilia from World War II on the second floor.  Among other things, this museum showcases the contribution of our Native Americans to the war effort.   During the war in the Pacific the Navajo Code Talkers used their native language as the basis for communication.  As this language was not based on any other European or Asian language it was too difficult for the enemy to decipherer.  No view upon WWII is complete without knowledge about this individualized skill that saved the lives of thousands, and if you had or knew someone who served in the Pacific WWII theatre, they would testify that this small group of warriors saved more lives than any other aspect of American soldiering.

Choctaw soldiers in training for coded radio and telephone transmissions (Image from Wikipedia)
14 Code talkers 114 Code talkers 1

Comanche code talkers of the 4th Signal Company (Image from Wikipedia) 15 Code talkers 315 Code talkers 3

Painted Desert

(Note: the rest of this blog consists of photos and experiences from this trip in 2020 as well as a trip in 2013).

Our final destination on this particular trip was a re-visit to the Petrified Forest National park in Arizona.  As I understand, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest were at one time two separate parks but over time as they both grew they wound up touching each other and are now both included in the Petrified Forest National Park.  The Painted Desert part is on the north side of I-40 and Petrified Forest part is on the south side.  The main (only) paved park road goes north-south through both of them and Interstate 40 slices through going east/west.  If you ever find yourself traveling along I-40 across northern Arizona don’t miss the opportunity to jump off the freeway and see these parks.  The park entrance is literally at the end of the freeway exit ramp so not wanting to detour from your route is no excuse.

We got to the park around 9:15 am mid May on the 2013 trip and a bit later on the 2020 trip so in both cases the light was already past it's prime for photography.  But the Painted Desert was so gorgeous with all the striated colors in the rolling landscape I shot photos anyway.  Surprisingly, many of them came out OK but I sure do wish I'd been there closer to sunrise or sunset.  In the Painted Desert part of the park you are on the top of a mesa, looking down into the landscape that extends off into the distance as far as the eye can see.  The literature says this is the southern edge of the Painted Desert but even so it was pretty spectacular.

Painted Desert From Tiponi Point
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Volcanic landscape from Tawa Point
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The Painted Desert is a set of badlands that run from near the east end of Grand Canyon National Park southeast into Petrified Forest National Park. It is most easily accessed at its north end its own exit on I-40.  The Painted Desert is known for its brilliant and varied colors that not only include the more common red rock one sees throughout the American Southwest, but also shades of pink, blue, gray, and lavender. 

It was named by an expedition under Francisco Vázquez de Coronado on his 1540 quest to find the Seven Cities of Cibola, which he actually did locate some 40 miles east of where the park is now.  However, contrary to the common wisdom of the time, the cities were not made of gold.  By the time Coronado got to the Seven Cities of Cibola he was somewhat short on supplies so sent an expedition to find the Colorado River which could be used to find a settlement for supplies.   On the way to the river they passed through an area of wonderland colors which they named El Desierto Pintado ("The Painted Desert").

The desert is composed of stratified layers of easily erodible siltstone, mudstone, and shale. These fine grained rock layers contain abundant iron and manganese compounds which provide the pigments for the various colors of the region. Thin resistant lacustrine limestone layers and volcanic flows cap the mesas.

Stratified layers from Kachina Point
Painted Desert 1, AZPainted Desert 1, AZ

And, from Pintado Point
Painted Desert 2, AZPainted Desert 2, AZ

As we had on our prior visit, we entered the park on its north end where the park road is an exit on I-40.  This is the end that first goes through the Painted Desert on the north side of I-40 and then continues on into the Petrified Forest on the south side of I-40.  There are 9 scenic overlooks in the Painted Desert part of the park before crossing old RT-66 and I-40 into the Petrified Forest section.  However, I must say that there was plenty of painted desert on the south side as well and to be honest many desert vistas south of I-40. 

From Katchina Point
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From Kachina Point
Painted desert from Painted Desert InnPainted desert from Painted Desert Inn

Where the park road crosses the path of old Rt-66 there is a little pull off and a sign but it just looked like the rest of the desert.  As much as I tried I could not detect a more level strip that could have been where the road was.  However, they were kind enough to place the rusted shell of a 1930’s or 1940’s touring car near the sign just so it wouldn’t be a complete waste of time making that stop.  I also liked a concrete block with an embedded car grill near the sign.  I wasn’t impressed enough to bother taking a photo there but seeing as how I now find myself writing a paragraph on the location I grabbed a couple of shots from the internet (Google Maps). If you’re keen eyed you may be able to make out some modern trucks on I-40 in background.

Route 66 marker.  I suppose the line of telephone poles marks the side of where the road was
02 Rt66 Sign & Car02 Rt66 Sign & Car

The Grille
01 Rt66 Grille Monument01 Rt66 Grille Monument

Painted Desert Inn

The Painted Desert Inn is one of the few remaining establishments built in the late 1800’s by Fred Harvey and which came to be known as “Harvey Houses”.  If you recall much about American History (when they taught such things in school), that was a period of westward expansion accompanied by massive railroad projects to link up the continent starting with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.  Fred noted that on long trips “out west”, finding a place to eat when traveling on the trains was sketchy at best.  This was before dining cars on passenger trains were introduced and the only option for a meal was a roadhouse located near the railroad’s water stops.  These typically consisted of nothing more than rancid meat, cold beans and week old coffee.

Fred set out to change this as well as to make money with a string of high quality restaurants with good service at railroad meal stop locations in the west.  After a failed attempt to build a few cafes in Kansas in 1876, in 1879 Fred convinced the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) to give him a contract for several eating houses on an experimental basis, starting in Florence, Kansas.  These were so successful that he was able to rapidly expand into a chain of restaurants (said to be the first chain restaurants in the US) that eventually numbered 84.

Painted Desert Inn – “Harvey House”
Painted Desert Inn #4Painted Desert Inn #4

The company and its employees, including the famous waitresses who came to be known as Harvey Girls, successfully brought new higher standards of both civility and dining to a region widely regarded in the era as the "Wild West". The popularity of the Harvey Girls grew even stronger in 1946 when Judy Garland starred in the film version of Samuel Hopkins Adams’s novel The Harvey Girls.

Railroad officials and passengers were impressed with Fred Harvey's strict standards for high quality food and first class service and as word got out passenger traffic significantly increased.  As a result, AT&SF entered into subsequent (mostly oral) contracts wherein he was given unlimited funds to set up the series of what were dubbed "eating houses" along most of the railroad routes.  At more prominent locations, these eating houses evolved into hotels, many of which survive today.  By the late 1880s, there was a Fred Harvey dining facility located every 100 miles along the AT&SF.  What made this work was that the Railroad agreed to transport fresh meat and produce free of charge to Fred’s restaurants using its own line of refrigerator cars.  Fred Harvey even establish two dairy farms out west (the larger being in New Mexico) to assure a constant supply of fresh milk. 

Harvey's meals were served in sumptuous portions that provided a good value for the traveling public; for instance, pies were cut into fourths, rather than sixths, which was the industry standard at the time.  The Harvey Company and AT&SF established a series of signals that allowed the dining room staff to make the necessary preparations to feed an entire train in just thirty minutes.  Harvey Houses served their meals on fine China and Irish linens.  Fred Harvey, a fastidious innkeeper, set high standards for efficiency and cleanliness in his establishments, personally inspecting them as often as possible.  It was said that nothing escaped his notice, and he was even known to completely overturn a poorly set table. Male customers were required to wear a coat and tie in many of Harvey's dining rooms.  The Harvey Houses served free meals to GIs traveling on troop trains during World War II.

Later, when dining cars were added to long haul passenger trains, the Fred Harvey Company was contracted to operate the rolling version of his restaurants which the AT&SF advertised as “Fred Harvey All the Way”.

Even with the fine cuisine and spotless facilities, one of the most enduring things about Harvey Houses were those “Harvey Girls” who served the meals. The recruiting advertisements called for "young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey Eating Houses on the Santa Fe Railroad in the West."  In exchange for good looks, manners, and service, women found well paid employment, adventure, and oftentimes, marriage beyond the opportunities of home and farm.  At that time The West was pretty uncivilized but these women had to maintain a reputation for femininity and morality strictly enforced by their employer.  All donned a standard uniform of black or white starched skirt, high-collared blouse, with a bib and apron; they served their patrons with practiced precision.  Harvey Girls contracted for six, nine, or twelve months of service and received a salary, room and board, tips, and free tickets on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. In addition to previously unheard-of salaries for unskilled women at the time, they gained a sense of pride and independence.

One of the best preserved Harvey Houses is the "Painted Desert Inn" in what is now the Petrified National park where it has been restored and is open as a museum.  Inside we ran into a ranger who told us the Fascinating story of the place.  Then, when he saw we were actually listening and interested, took us around back and unlocked some doors into rooms where the "Harvey Girls" lived while they worked there and told us what it was like for them.  Quite fascinating. 

Painted Desert Inn Lobby
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Living Quarters for a “Harvey Girl”
Guest room, Painted Desert Inn Harvey HouseGuest room, Painted Desert Inn Harvey House

Petrified Forest

Now, I've been to many "petrified forest" attractions in many different parts of the country before.  In most cases you may see a bump in the ground that they say is a petrified tree stump, or you may see a little fragment of something here or there.  In these places the vast majority of the petrified wood you see is in the gift shop.  So, my expectation was that this park would be somewhat similar.  Maybe a few more fragments scattered about as the Park Service may be more diligent in keeping relics from wandering off but I didn't expect much.  In fact, I presumed that the most interesting thing would be watching a few trains go under a bridge on the main park road.

One of the first turn off’s was to some petroglyphs called “Newspaper Rock”.  I’ve seen a bunch of those before but as long as we were here, might as well check it out.  Well, it turned out to be a dud.  You can't get close, they're at a weird angle to where you're standing and it’s just one smallish rock.  They do have a scope to help you see them, but we’ve seen much better elsewhere.

Newspaper Rock
Painted Desert 6, AZPainted Desert 6, AZ

However, from then on, every turnout had great views of the Painted Desert landscape - each one with different formations and colors - or had tons of petrified logs, or both.  Between the two trips we stopped at just about every turn out and took several of the shorter loop trail walks.  On the 2020 trip though our plans were thwarted due to a bridge being rebuilt stopping us at Blue Mesa.  To get to the southern half of the park you’d have to backtrack all the way back to I-40, then loop all the way around the park and re-enter at the southern entrance.  This would add more than an hour and would then also require back tracking once again when leaving so we opted out of that.  However on our 2013 trip we were able to do the whole park.

After the disappointing petroglyphs, the next major attraction is Blue Mesa.  In terms of petrified wood, there are entire petrified logs lying around as well as smaller chunks. By small, I'm guessing over 100 pounds each as most all of the "carry-able" pieces nearby the trails had been stolen and carted off by tourists long ago. We won't go into my opinion of people who do that sort of thing other than to say it's not high.  Not only was there loads of petrified wood to see, much of it had incredible colors and patterns. A real delight to see. 

Unlike the reds/oranges of the Painted Desert section, here the color palette is in the blue/violet range
Blue Mesa #3, Petrified Forest NPBlue Mesa #3, Petrified Forest NP

Blue Mesa Textures
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Blue Mesa Dome
Painted Desert 8, AZPainted Desert 8, AZ

Piece of petrified log at Blue Mesa
Petrified Tree #1Petrified Tree #1

After Blue mesa, on our 2013 trip we continued on through the rest of the park.  However on the 2020 trip the road was closed just south of the Blue Mesa turn off due to a bridge being missing.  So, the rest of these photos and descriptions are from the 2013 trip.

While there are many named pull off spots south of Blue Mesa the one that stands out is the Crystal Forest.  This location has a several trails, including a self guided accessible trail through the area. 

The Crystal Forest area was once covered in sparkling quartz and purple amethyst crystals that developed in the hollows of the logs as the trees petrified.  Unfortunately, in the late 1800s, before the establishment of Petrified Forest National Monument, many ancient logs were dynamited by those seeking the semi-precious gems.  Massive petrified trees were blasted into the small chips you can still see scattered about alongside the trail.  But, much of the forest is still present.

While the bark of these petrified trees is quite similar to the petrified logs at Blue Mesa and other pull outs, what makes these special are the interior of the logs which can be seen where they have broken apart. 

Petrified log, Crystal Forest
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Real sense that there was once an actual forest worth of trees (Crystal Forest Area)
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In bright sun, the crystallized quartz and amethyst sparkle and almost glow with color as the light refracts through the crystal structures. 

Crystal forest
Petrified Forest 6, AZPetrified Forest 6, AZ

Turned to Stone
Petrified Forest 7, AZPetrified Forest 7, AZ

The core of the log
Petrified Forest 8, AZPetrified Forest 8, AZ

Crystallized Bark
Petrified Forest 2, AZPetrified Forest 2, AZ

The Painted Desert and half of the Petrified Forest marked the end of the destinations for this trip.  We spent that night in Needles and the next day drove back home on the same route we use for most all of our southwest trips (through Bakersfield, up I-5, over Pacheco Pass to US-101 and then home).

I hope you enjoyed reading about our visit to several desert locations in Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico and that you’ll follow along on future trips it we’re ever allowed to go anywhere again.


On the days covered in this episode, the world kept going.  The last 3 days of the trip saw the President declare that the death count would be no worse than that of the common flu.  And when the numbers kept going up he said, “Well, this was unexpected”, “We're prepared, and we're doing a great job with it”, and “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away”.  Two days later the US suspended all travel into the US from Europe for 30 days.

When we started the trip there were 16 confirmed cases of COVID19 in the US, by the time we got home there were close to 1,300 and on the day I’m writing this there are 7,345,406 confirmed cases.  In terms of COVID19 deaths, there had been one the day we left, 37 known or probable by the time we got home and today over well over a quarter million with no end in sight.

By the time we returned home, nothing had been shut down.  We still had not heard of “Shelter in Place”, one could still go to a ball game, concert or movie and could travel to most places in the world.  Face masks were suggested only for first line medical workers and deemed not needed for the general public.  It wasn’t until 2 weeks after our return that any business or travel restrictions were put in place.



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Check out my travel blogs for other trips under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .


Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford unless otherwise stated (some from a trip in 2013).  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)





Alice Smith(non-registered)
colors and photography breathtaking. Thank you.
Roberta R(non-registered)
Hi Dan,

Thanks for sharing your wonderful trip and photos. The Crystal Forest is interesting to me. We had to cancel our New York September trip. It's good that you were able to finish your SW trip.


Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
HI Dan, thanks for the great photos. Was at White Sands a couple decades ago, and it was great to get to see it again. That special gypsum crystal sand is certainly special - and it infiltrates one's shoes like crazy! Did enjoy sliding down the dunes. We had some fun on our ranger-led tour - he spotted someone shoveling it into tubs in the back of his truck. Of course, he busted him, had him dump the sand, and he was escorted out by another ranger. Lovely shots of the Painted Desert.
Thanks, b
Aavo K(non-registered)
Hi Dan.

As always I enjoyed your trip to Southwest.
Since you visited the Code Talkers museum I have a story that relates to that
I was attending City College of New York after arriving in US 5 years ago. NYC is very ethnic and all my friends were Estonians living in the city.
So the three of us decided to take a college break and join the army with the promise that we would stay together and go to Germany.
We all ended up in the regimental Intelligence and Recognizance Platoon, each in a different squad.
So the joke was that if we were in real combat we would be the Code Talkers in Estonian.
Well, it never happened and the three of us had a great time travelling in Europe. And we went back and got our degrees.
Stay healthy

John Hardman(non-registered)
Hi Dan. I enjoyed this travelogue. Hope all is well.
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