I don’t know why it is, but whenever I think of U.S. National Parks, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the Grand Canyon, the rock arches throughout Utah, or the arctic wildlife of Alaska.
It’s Yogi Bear.
It’s obvious that I need a proper education in America’s National Parks, isn’t it?
Over the summer, Bruno and I received a surprise belated wedding gift from my brother and his partner, Aracelli – an America the Beautiful Pass. This one-year pass gives free entry for one vehicle and all its passengers to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including all U.S. National Parks. Armed with this amazingly-valued permit, we hopped off Route 66 and did a back-to-back exploration of my first two parks. Thanks to my brother and sister-in-law, my national parks education is finally underway.
Petrified Forest National Park
Before reading up on this park in my National Geographic Guide to U.S. National Parks (also a wedding gift from my bro), I had never heard of it. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have made a huge detour to visit it, either – I’m not really into geology, and the idea of visiting a park preserving hunks of wood seemed a tad underwhelming.
But Arizona’s section of Route 66 cut right through Petrified Forest NP, and by that point, I was ready to get off the Mother Road and do something else.
I was in for a pleasant surprise. I guess there’s a reason the U.S. National Parks have such a great reputation.
Petrified Forest NP is divided into essentially three sections, and each offers a unique, eye-opening experience. In the north is the Painted Desert, a stark but striking landscape of colourful layers of sedimentary rock. To my eyes, these badland formations were like a multilayer cake of strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. The Blue Mesa, near the center of the park, had particularly clear layers, as though an artist had used a ruler to paint strips of lavender, rust, and grey onto a blank canvas. It looked too perfect to be Nature. But it is – millions of years of temperamental Nature telling those of us that can read rock a story.
I’m no rock-reader, but I did learn a bit of elementary geology that added a layer (pun intended!) of depth to the already beautiful otherworldly landscapes before me. See, the Painted Desert unfolds itself to park visitors via a series of viewpoints from atop a natural plateau. The plateau is made of black basalt rock that came from a recent (read: 5-16 million years ago) volcanic eruption. This hard rock has protected the softer, older rock below from the erosion that has occurred all around. Even the viewpoints tell an age-old story of change and chance.
The middle section of Petrified Forest NP speaks to ethnohistorians. Archaeologists have uncovered parts of a gigantic pueblo (village) that was home to a tribe living on this land 700 years ago. Puerco Pueblo was a group house consisting of one hundred rooms built around a central courtyard. Up to two hundred people lived here at one point, pointing to the soil-depleting effects of human agriculture in the region.
Nearby are petroglyphs carved upon rock, probably by this same group of people. There are photos of animals and people, but also abstract geometrical figures. One rocky area has so many petroglyphs that it has been nicknamed Newspaper Rock!
There is evidence in the park that humans have inhabited this land for 8,000 years. But to me, this middle section was most poignant because it showed how inconsequential our human history is in comparison to the other forces of Nature.
This point was further driven home when I finally encountered the petrified rock for which the park is named. The southernmost section is filled with walking trails that take you past pieces of giant petrified wood. Besides being a bit sparkly – and smooth to the touch, like rock – the wood looks just like, well, wood. Bruno kept getting very excited, however. I did too, once I understood what I was actually looking at.
This wood is 218 million years old (to put that into perspective, the Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed these parts 135 million years later!). Back then, Arizona was actually a tropical forest only 4 degrees away from the Equator line (Pangaea in action is even crazier!). The trees here were situated along a river channel, so many of them fell over during floods and were buried under the salt and soil before they could decompose. Over the years, silica molecules slowly percolated into the wood, transforming it into quartz. Erosion has brought those pieces of quartz-wood to the surface, allowing us to discover these wood fossils.
Once I knew this, the petrified wood took on a totally different hue. I was standing before something prehistoric, something beyond my logical grasp of time. The oldest thing I’ve ever experienced. I almost felt I should bow.
Petrified Forest National Park may not be a gigantic wilderness area with obviously impressive flora and fauna. But with its sheer variety of experiences – and something for the ethnohistorian, geologist, and palaeontologist in all of us – Petrified Forest National Park is worthy of a good day trip. I’m grateful it was my first U.S. National Park.
Saguaro National Park
I saw my first saguaro cactus as we drove down the Colorado Plateau from Petrified Forest NP toward Tucson, Arizona. I couldn’t believe I had never come face to face with this quintessential symbol of the desert. I’ve been to several – the Sahara, the Kalahari, and the Arabian Desert. Heck, I didn’t even know they were called saguaro.
By the time we reached the Visitor’s Center at Saguaro National Park, I had a long list of questions about this most intriguing of cacti. Saguaro are endemic to the Sonoran Desert, a complex and diverse ecosystem ranging from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to southern California and a small piece of southern Arizona. Apparently all those classic Western movies with Texan cowboys riding past these iconic cacti have gotten their ecology all wrong!
Contrary to what one might think about a cactus, the saguaro is actually a sensitive plant. It requires a particular kind of desert – one with twice-yearly rainfall. Because of its sensitivity to frost, it cannot grow above a certain altitude or latitude. You can actually see rings around many saguaros showing points at which frost stopped the growth of the plant. The saguaro disperses up to 40 million seeds in its lifetime, but only a single seed will reach maturity and replace the parent plant!
Bruno and I camped at a fantastic nearby campsite (that I highlighted in my November Wrap-Up) and set out onto the park’s longest hiking trail the next morning. We hadn’t done a serious hike in about a year (since the Rota Vicentina in Portugal) and it was the perfect way to study the Sonoran Desert, and the saguaro, more closely.
I had learned about the life cycle of the saguaro at the visitor’s center, but on the trail I saw it in action. The saguaro grows very slowly, at less than a centimeter a year. That one lucky seed will begin its life under another desert plant – called a “nurse plant” – which will provide shade and protection for the seedling. Eventually it will outgrow and outlive its nurse, developing its infamous arms at about 75 years old. By the time it reaches 200 years old, it can weigh up to 7 tons and be as tall as a four-storey building! When it dies – due to harsh weather, disease, and vandalism – the saguaro slowly loses its green shade, becomes more bark-like, exposes its woody, porous interior, and then disintegrates into the earth.
As Bruno and I hiked up to the park’s 1400m-peak, we played desert games. We tried to find saguaro at each point of their life cycle. It was easy. I searched for the biggest saguaro I could find. We looked for woodpeckers, snakes, owls, and mice in the holes carved into the saguaro. Bruno played the cactus version of the “cloud game” (the one where you find shapes in the clouds), pointing out different human-like poses by these very human-looking plants – so human that the Tohono O’odham, the natives of the Sonora Desert, believe the saguaro to be spirits of their ancestors.
Hiking was the best way I could think of to experience the Sonoran Desert. Driving by we would have missed too many subtle details, like the cholla cacti that look like a creation from a Dr. Seuss book or the dried yellow flower bulbs sprouting up from the saguaro. I’d love to visit this park in late spring when the saguaro blossoms waxy yellow and white flowers. The Tohono O’odham cultivate this flower ever July – marking the beginning of their New Year – to produce jams, jellies, candy, and ceremonial wine used to bring on the summer rains. Saguaro National Park was the perfect introduction to the Sonoran Desert, the backdrop for our overland adventures for the next few months.
The Petrified Forest and the Saguara National Park couldn’t be more different parks. They preserve completely different landscapes, have totally different weather patterns, and offer drastically different experiences. This is amazing to me since the two parks are in the same state, and only a few hundred kilometers apart.
Yet, they both impacted me in the same way. They each elevated a simple piece of flora – wood and cactus – that I would have otherwise glanced at inconsequentially. They revealed the depth of value that a piece of wilderness can hold. They prompted feelings of wonder at how small and fleeting I am. And they demonstrated the variety and richness of America’s natural beauty. Despite all the ugliness going on in the United States right now, these parks give me hope that America still is Beautiful.
Volunteer at U.S. National Parks!
If anyone is getting really excited about America’s National Parks by reading this, you might want to consider a pretty cool opportunity – volunteering at one of them! At Petrified Forest N.P. I got to talk to a retired couple that has been volunteering full-time at National Parks all over the country for the past five years. They stay a couple of months in each park and offer about 30 hours per week of service in any capacity they can. In return, they are provided with free accommodation in the park.
I think this is such a cool opportunity, and it’s definitely on my radar for the future. You get to experience a park in much more depth than as a short-term visitor, and you also get to give back to a worthy project. The National Parks are severely underfunded, and will likely be even more once Mr. Trump takes office. If you have a particular skill and at least a month of free time, then please consider putting your skills to work!
For more information on this amazing opportunity, and for the application form, check out this link.