Travel

Kaleidoscope Colors of Crystalized Trees Shine in This Trippy National Park

It's like Badlands meets a rainbow forest meets a desert.

Rebecca L. Latson/Moment/Getty Images
Rebecca L. Latson/Moment/Getty Images
Rebecca L. Latson/Moment/Getty Images

Despite having a name that sounds like an outdoor haunted house, the only thing to fear about Petrified Forest National Park is the FOMO you’ll have from overlooking this underrated Arizona gem. Unlike other tree-centric parks in the National Park System, this is a remote desert terrain with behemoth boulder-sized logs scattered across the land. In fact, the name “forest” is a misnomer in this arid land of wind-swept badlands, fossilized bones, faded petroglyphs, and petrified wood, twinkling in the Arizona sun.

Located in the sleepy northeast part of the state, this is the only national park in America that’s literally bisected by Route 66, making it the most quintessential road trip park you never knew you needed. Plus, being overshadowed by that other Arizona national park, Petrified Forest is comparatively quieter-with about 4 million fewer visitors than the Grand Canyon-but it’s especially enchanting. With a dusty, barren backdrop reminiscent of a scene from Cars, this 221,390-acre park is a sleeper hit for geologists, paleontologists, and tree-huggers-despite the fact that the resident trees have been dead for 200 million years.

Juan Carlos Munoz/Shutterstock
Juan Carlos Munoz/Shutterstock
Juan Carlos Munoz/Shutterstock

Whereas once mighty trees stood as tall as sequoias in tropical, dinosaur-dwelling jungles, they’ve long since succumbed to the powers of Mother Nature. Preserved in time, these trees were felled by raging rivers hundreds of millions of years ago, then buried under sediment, and slowly crystalised by volcanic ash and silica.

Nowadays, remnants of Arizona’s tropical past have long since dwindled, leaving behind gigantic petrified logs that have been almost entirely transformed into solid quartz. Serious desert bling, the logs get their kaleidoscopic shimmer from iron, carbon, and manganese, imbuing them tints of purple and royal green.

It may not look like much at first, but this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it park is home to one of the largest collections of petrified wood on Earth, perfectly preserved relics of a prehistoric era where rivers once raged and terrifying reptilians once prowled. Composed of several smaller “forests,” like Rainbow Forest and Painted Desert, the park is teeming with lustrous logs strewn across badlands and buttes. Home to easy hiking trails, Jurassic-level fossils, and ancient petroglyphs, Petrified Forest is like a road trip time capsule to a bygone epoch. Here’s what to know about visiting.

Flickr/Andrew Kearns
Flickr/Andrew Kearns
Flickr/Andrew Kearns

When to visit Petrified Forest National Park

Unlike Grand Canyon National Park, which sees more than 4 million annual visitors, Petrified Forest sees a scant 600,000 visitors each year, making this one low-key park where you don’t really need to worry about crowds, traffic, or a lack of trailhead parking spaces. The only thing you really need to contend with when mapping out a stop at Petrified Forest is weather. This is Arizona after all-a state whose scorching forecasts are decidedly not low-key.

Thanks to its high elevation, around 5,800 feet, the park isn’t as searingly hot as much of the rest of the state, but July and August can still see temps soar well into the 90s. And due to the fact that you’re that much closer to the sun, you’ll feel the burn. This being the desert, things cool off dramatically after sunset, plummeting down to the low 50s even at the summer peak. While summer is prime time for the park, your best bet to beat the heat is to arrive early-unlike most national parks, Petrified Forest has designated park hours of 8 am–6 pm, and there’s a literal gate on the main park road (keep in mind that Arizona does not observe daylight savings time).

Although the park sees very little precipitation, July and August are the months when afternoon storms are most likely, which would be refreshing if it weren’t for the fact that rain turns the sandy landscape into one big slippery mud pit. Winter gets shockingly cool by most Arizona standards, with highs in the mid-40s. Spring can be windy but dry, and fall still gets some of those tapered thunderstorms, but with comfortably cooler temperatures.

Steven Love/EyeEm/Getty Images
Steven Love/EyeEm/Getty Images
Steven Love/EyeEm/Getty Images

The ultimate road trip park

With Route 66 conveniently weaving right through the park, making Petrified Forest the only national park with a section of the Americana highway, this is one park that’s especially perfect for road trips.

The main artery is the Park Road that meanders for 28 miles from the Painted Desert Visitor Center in the north to the Rainbow Forest Museum on the southern end. Not only straightforward and easy, the road is one of the most epic and enchanting scenic drives in any national park, with numerous pullouts to park and gawk. You’ll also find several short and easy hiking trails going from the lookout spots heading into the quiet wilderness. Of the park’s seven designated trails, none are more than three miles, and they’re all dog-friendly.

William Cushman/Shutterstock
William Cushman/Shutterstock
William Cushman/Shutterstock

Start with a stop at the visitor centre, where exhibits and an introductory film show you how these once-soaring trees transformed into the bejewelled boulders they are today. Driving south, prime pit stops include Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock for petroglyphs and indigenous lore.

You’ll also find must-do trails like Blue Mesa, which is a prime example of quality over quantity-a short paved loop begins atop a ridge of blue-tinted badlands before descending into the desert dotted with shimmering petrified wood. For even more wow, stop at the Giant Logs Trail, home to the largest fallen trees in the park, including Old Faithful, a log so large that it’s as wide as an RV.

While designated trails are sparse, visitors are able to venture into the park’s 50,000 acres of backcountry wilderness, hiking and camping wherever your heart desires (as long as you’re at least a mile from the road).

Matthew Swartz/EyeEm/Getty Images
Matthew Swartz/EyeEm/Getty Images
Matthew Swartz/EyeEm/Getty Images

Channel your inner Laura Dern

Sure, you could go see the new Jurassic World movie, or you can just live your best Jurassic life in Petrified Forest (without the risk of being chased by velociraptors), home to real-deal fossils and some intimidatingly epic history.

When these trees once stood some 200-feet tall, in a sub-tropical wilderness that looks nothing like present-day Arizona, the region was located further toward the Equator. It once swarmed with dinos so fierce and huge-including crocodile-like nightmare creatures-they would make the Jurassic Park franchise look like a Nickelodeon cartoon. Of the park’s insightful museums, the Rainbow Forest Museum at the southern end contains fossils and exhibits that tell the story of the region’s Jurassic-level past.

About 200 million years later, the “forest” was once again abuzz with new residents. Evidence exists of indigenous people living here for millennia, leaving behind preserved remnants like rock-carved petroglyphs at sites like Newspaper Rock.

To delve even deeper into Native American lore, the Puerco Pueblo Trail is a hop and skip to a once-thriving village that stood around the year 1300, comprised mostly of wood and mud. The most intact of the park’s bygone villages, Puerco Pueblo still has multiple open-air rooms anchored by an inner plaza that once served as a communal, ceremonial gathering place.

Flickr/Andrea Lai
Flickr/Andrea Lai
Flickr/Andrea Lai

Where to stay near Petrified Forest National Park

Around here, lodging is even more sparse than the hiking trails. Aside from camping in the primitive backcountry, there are no campgrounds in the park, and staying overnight in an RV or otherwise is not allowed-the gates on the Park Road close at 6 p.m., and that means it’s time to go. To camp, you’ll need to acquire a wilderness permit, which is free, from either visitor centre on the day you plan on roughing it.

Outside of the park, campgrounds-for both RVers and tents-can be found at nearby national park sites like Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, as well as in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and state parks like Blue Water State Park, Homolovi State Park, and Lyman Lake State Park.

For hotels, the nearest town to Petrified Forest is Holbrook, where you’ll find all your run-of-the-mill options at mostly affordable rates. Unlike some national parks, where nearby restaurant options are surprisingly abundant, Petrified Forest is not a foodie paradise. Holbrook is comprised mostly of chains, save for a few straightforward mom-and-pop spots like Tom & Suzie’s Diner and Sombreritos Mexican Food. But you’re road tripping here for the fossilized trees, after all, not the haute cuisine.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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