The Natural Beauty of National Parks

We got a late start out of Red Rock Park. The sun didn’t peek over the hills until 9:00 am, which means it was cold until then, too. Not that we were in a rush to leave such a beautiful place. I will certainly be back.

We saw a couple of sites around Gallup. Unfortunately, between construction traffic and a lack of legal parking, these were the best shots I could get of two iconic Gallup landmarks. We left town on Route 66 as far as we could go, but soon found ourselves dumped back onto I-40, as usual these days.

Before long we entered Arizona, or more specifically the Navajo reservation, the largest in the country. There weren’t any Route 66 specific stops of note, but the tourist traps seemed to have more billboards than South of the Border. You can’t possibly miss them.

The miles passed quickly on the Interstate, and soon we reached the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park. We’d intended to just hit the visitor center on our way to Winslow, but I could only buy my America the Beautiful pass to all national parks at the entry gate, so we did that. It’s so worth it. For $80, I now have access to all national parks and wildlife refuges. The ranger who sold me the pass immediately started telling me about all the free camping this would get me all over the country.

“Yeah, you see the van, you know what’s up,” I told him. He got a good chuckle. Birgit and Tom already had theirs. Then, once we were already in the park anyway, we figured we might as well drive the park loop road, so we did.

It was mostly overcast so the colors didn’t really pop, but WOW. Pictures do not do this place justice, no matter how many filters I use. I suppose if I’m going to visit Arizona for the first time (walking to the other side of Hoover Dam didn’t count), I might as well start with a bang.

It’s still a worthy Route 66 stop, though. These parks were the only national park it went through, and they’re definitely worth a stop, pass or no pass. A small roadside stop with this old car commemorates the park’s Route 66 history.

Unlike in the cartoons I grew up watching, the real petrified forest isn’t a standing forest, but ancient trees that have fallen and been converted to rock that resembles their original form. I can only imagine what early explorers, who were accustomed to forests back east, must’ve thought when they found these stone trees in the middle of the desert. Unlike real trees, these look the same now as they did over 100 years ago. Or probably 10,000 years ago. Yet when you reach out and touch them, they’re definitely rock, not wood.

This one, in particular, is a 217 million year old tree that fell in just the right way to get preserved. The concrete support under it is a more recent addition to preserve it, as it’s only a matter of time until erosion underneath it causes it to fall and shatter.

I took lots of pictures, but I’ll have to come back sometime and try to do better. This was an unplanned whirlwind tour, so I didn’t study the map at all or really get to know the place. Now that I have the pass, though, it’s no big loss for right now. It won’t cost me any more to come back, spend a full day, and do this properly. It would be great to camp nearby and explore the parks on the bike for easy maneuvering and parking — strictly on pavement, in this case. No, I’m not going trail riding in a national park.

It was a short drive from the other end of the park loop to Holbrook. We’d planned to get to Winslow today, but Birgit and Tom were wiped, so we stayed at a truck stop overnight. No, I didn’t take this entire truck space for myself. We parked both vans nose to tail in the same one. Normally we don’t take truck spaces at all, but the few car spaces were on a steep hill, while the truck spaces are level.

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