Man and woman in trail running gear standing together over the red buttes of Kachina Point.

It was supposed to be a quick stop to stretch our legs after days of driving. We thought we would be back on the road in a couple of hours. It wasn’t. We weren’t. Maybe we shouldn’t have expected the 7-miles of Wilderness Loop Trail through Petrified Forest National Park to be a minor blip on our driving schedule. What it was, instead, was a bumbling adventure through 200 million years of geologic history. And an incredibly scenic one at that.

Woman in trail running gear running along Wilderness Loop in Petrified Forest National Park.
This may be the most delightful section to explore. The rocks are fantastic.
Desert flora.
It’s a dry, dry desert.

Trail Running in Petrified Forest National Park

We have visited Petrified Forest National Park in the past but never as trail runners. We have already taken pictures at many of the scenic vistas and wandered the museum displays. What we haven’t done is run. And after a few days sitting in the truck driving west, we are eager to stretch our legs and put our relatively newly adopted passion for trail running to use.

The longest marked hiking trail in Petrified Forest National Park is a 2-mile round trip.  We are looking for something longer, wilder.  Fortunately, the park also includes off-trail routes, backcountry hiking. Rather than following a paved path, well-trodden dirt trails, or flagged routes, we will be navigating by landmarks. 

The ranger passes me a packet of paper with pictures and descriptions of points of interest for a seven-mile trail known as the Wilderness Loop Trail.  None of the route is marked, it falls on us to find these land marks and travel accordingly. 

I don’t think much of the undertaking as we leave the ranger station. But it doesn’t take us far from the trailhead to see the many footsteps scattered across the sandy desert floor. These directions are interpreted in many diverging ways.

View from behind a woman in a beanie looking out on desert badlands of Wilderness Loop in Petrified Forest National Park.
Looking down into the badlands.

Navigating the Petrified Forest Wilderness

The Wilderness Loop Trail begins at the Painted Desert Inn. A historic structure perched on the rim above colorful badlands known as the Black Forest. Inside is a gift shop and ice cream parlor. But we park the truck and make a beeline for the trailhead.

The Black Forest doesn’t have the thick fur trees that such a name may inspire. At least, the foliage of the trees that make up this forest is long gone. Some may be fossilized. But most of what remains is the eponymous petrified wood, part of the Chinle Formation, around 210 million years old.

We descend into the forest along a trail of switchbacks lined with juniper, yucca, and dry grass. The route continues between brilliant pink and red sandstone hills until we reach a relatively flat and grey platue. Here the trail fades into a confusing dance of footsteps. We wander along a grey rim until we find a well defined descent and a notable point of interest: a stone bridge once used for transporting supplies to the Inn.

The bridge, however, is a brief solace as we wander into a broad pink wash and squint along the horizon for some hint of the next landmark. Route finding is a skill. One in which we have a lot to learn.  It takes patience and a cool head to not let one misstep compound into getting hopelessly lost.  Several times we have to stop and backtrack to our last known landmark before we find the correct route. 

Sometimes we can use the footsteps of past hikers as guides. Sometimes. But other times, our GPS map looks more like an asterisk (*) as we repeatedly run in different directions and return to an anchor point until we find the right way to continue.

Woman running past a red rock butte on Wilderness Loop in Petrified Forest National Park.
Finally, we are back on the trail.

Trail Safety

We see evidence of past rainfall as we approach one large muddy wash. In hindsight, I can now look at maps of the area and see that this marks the transition into the Wilderness Area. The fresh rainfall washed away the footprints of past hikers. We run up and down the banks, looking for the next landmark before running across the pink mud and pick up the trail.

Each of these diversions whittles away at our water. We should have more than enough for 7 miles. But each time we turn around or stop to debate our route, we are drinking from a limited supply.

Of course, we know better than to take Arizona’s high desert for granted. The weather may be cool with a light cloud cover, but we are fully kitted out with knobby trail running shoes, leggings, long-sleeved sun covers, and hydration packs.

Even so, we are drinking water like a fish. And while this wash was clearly overflowing with water recently, there isn’t any for us to refill our packs now. We are barely a mile into the run and becoming painfully conscious of our water consumtion rate.

Woman drinking from a hydration pack in the desert.
We only run 4 miles but we empty out both of our water flasks by the end of the run in this dry desert environment.

Leave Only Footprints

Just past the wash, however, is the highlight of this run. We jog along a trail of soft pink sand, past golden-striped boulders, and up onto a plateau littered with petrified wood. These are remains of trees that fell over 200 million years ago when this was an unrecognizably lush landscape. While most wood decomposes over time, this is wood that was buried by ancient rivers and, through a process of mineralization, became rock.

We can still see tree rings from the cross sections of large trunks and carefully hop between smaller, shattered pieces. After all, each piece is a delightful part of the park that we hope others will enjoy as much as we do.

Man walking through a wash of petrified wood along Wilderness Loop in Petrified Forest National Park.
This ravine is covered in chunks of petrified wood.
Woman running through the red desert of Wilderness Loop in Petrified Forest National Park
It’s a weight off our shoulders to run back.

Take Only Pictures

Other shards have a sadder resting place. It’s called the “conscience pile”. The park has a library of letters written by past visitors who did more than take pictures.  The letters recount stories of misfortune and tragedy that they attribute to bad luck from petrified wood they stole from the park.  The sad irony is that, while these letters accompany the returned wood, the damage is done.  These fragments can never truly be placed back where they once lay.  And so, instead, they mount up in a “conscience pile” of displaced petrified wood.  A reminder that not all things that are done, can be undone.  It falls on all of us to treat this land as stewards, with an eye not only to our present experience but the generations to come.

Woman running with a 360 camera.
Running among the red buttes.

I Disappointing Discovery

The riverbed of petrified wood gives way to a mini slot canyon before dumping us out on a broad pink plateau of bluffs. The directions tell us to keep the bluffs to our right and continue till we find the next deposit at Angel’s Garden. And while we do find some more petrified wood, we also find that at this point we are already half way through our water.

Could we make it through the entirety of the trail before nightfall? Probably. Could we get horrifically lost and die of thirst to be used as a cautionary tale in the newspapers next week? Possibly. Besides, we still have a lot of driving to do before we call it a day. So, only an embarrassing two miles into the trail, we turn around and head for the Inn.

Closeup view of a juniper in the desert.


The return is a completely different experience. We know where we are going. We know which turn takes us there. And rather than worrying about landmarks, we take in the scenery and only regret our lack of a packable full-frame camera to capture each moment.

Granted, the challenges are not completely over. It’s easy to overlook the elevation of Petrified Forest National Park. At least, initially it is easy to overlook. But with time and exertion, the elevation here also adds another layer to our adventure. At these heights, oxygen is scarcer, making every breath, every stride, more challenging.  It takes a while to understand our slower pace and the need to catch our breath.  The final climb to the trail terminus quickly devolves into a hike.  With occasional pauses to take in the remarkable view below.

Man and woman in trail running gear standing together over the red buttes of Kachina Point.
One last view from Kachina Point Vista
Painted Landscapes, Petroglyphs, And An Ancient Rainforest In Petrified Forest National Park
Brilliant colors derived from the minerals in the petrification process.

Lessons Learned

The Wilderness Loop Trail is an amazing route. I’d love to run it again, this time in its entirety. But before that, we have some work to do and gear to acquire.

As noted earlier, route finding is a skill, one that we are capable of learning, but need to put in the time and effort to better master terms, directions, and general navigation. Petrified Forest National Park is far from the only place with spotty to non-existant cellular service. And many of the most scenic trails are so remote, we can hardly count on the support and guidance of strangers. The term is orienteering. And it looks to be our next rabbit hole.

One easy thing to help would be running watches. Right now, we have Apple Watches. While they have GPS capabilities that track our progress, we have yet to find a functional app that would allow us to define a trail ahead of time to follow. It may be time for us to upgrade to more running-specific watches.

Hopefully, better route finding and watches will also allow our water to take us farther. But just in case, we’d also pack a few backup bottles so we can drink as much water as our bodies want without worrying about running out before we finish the trail.

So, hopefully, we can have a complete report on the Wilderness Loop Trail next time.

Lexi lives in a truck camper down by the river.

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