On my cross-country road trip from Tennessee to Colorado, I overshot by destination and ended up in Arizona. Since I was already there, I stopped to visit Petrified Forest National Park. Petrified Forest is a desert known for its fossilized wood. This was a budget trip and I was trying to camp as much as possible to save money. The park does not have a campground. BUT one can get a backpacking permit for Painted Desert camping for free.
The rules for the permit are simple. I had to hike at least a mile from the Painted Desert in and be north of the Lithodendron Wash. I could not collect plants, rocks, petrified wood, fossils, or archeological objects (This rule applies to the park at all times). I could not have a camp fire. I had to bury human waste and pack everything in that I packed out. The park is divided into zones and permits are only issued for certain zones.
I drove up to the Petrified Forest from Saguaro National Park. I had to make it to the Petrified Forest Visitor Center before it 5:00 pm to get my permit. I had a late start out of Saguaro so I was pushing to make the 6 hour drive. I didn’t have a Plan B if I didn’t make it. I checked my watch as I pulled into the visitor center. 4:50 pm. I made it. I walked into the visitor center and hoped they hadn’t given out all the permits for the Black Forest Zone.
With my permit secure, I drove up to the Painted Desert Inn. I had about hour and a half before sunset. I didn’t have any time to waste if I didn’t want to make camp in the dark. I packed my backpack with my overnight basics.
In my pack was:
- 1-man tent
- Sleeping bag
- Inflatable sleeping pad
- Camp Stove and fuel
- Food Bag
- Can of Chicken Noodle Soup
- Pack of Crackers
- 4 Granola Bars
- Pot and utensils
- 3 L of Water
- Change of Socks
- Jogging Shorts to sleep in
- Trekking Poles
I did a double check of gear and checked in with my mother. I told her that if she hadn’t heard from me by late afternoon the following day to let Park Service know. I headed away from the Inn and into the desert. The mile to the Lithodendron Wash is an easy flat trail with very little elevation gain. Once at the Wash, I was on my own. There are not official trails or campsites. As a general rule when cross-country camping, one looks for a campsite that hasn’t been used previously. I start looking for a good campsite.
Camping in the Painted Desert is an interesting set of challenges. I had to balance finding wind protection with elevation in case of a flood. Yes, it’s a desert but if a thunderstorm occurs flooding could happen. I didn’t want to find myself caught in a flood if I could help it. Hiking in the desert isn’t as easy as it would seem. The soil is loose and like to give out when stepping downhill. I found that out the hard way. I saw a promising campsite. I started working my way down to the stop. I planted my trekking pole and left foot when the soil gave out. Down I went. I slid about 10 ft before I managed to stop myself. I did a quick assessment and found I had cut my left leg.
It was nothing major and could wait. The spot was as good as I had seen. I was starting to lose daylight and I need to make camp. I unpacked by tent and got setup for the night. I pulled my Nalgene water bottle out. I used a spare sock to clean my leg. I grabbed my camping stove, matches, crackers, and can of soup. I hiked about 100 ft from my camp. I attempted to light my stove. The wind was relentless. I couldn’t find a windbreaker that would allow me to light my stove and keep it lit. After my third attempt, I gave up.
I found a seat and ate my cold soup and crackers and watched the sunset. I cleaned up my food and walked back to my tent. I left my rain fly off my tent so I could watch the stars. But alas, I fell asleep before the stars came out. Several hours later, the cold woke me up. I put on my jacket and spent some time sitting on my little hill enjoying the stars and listing to the sounds of the desert. I put my rain fly on my tent and went back to bed.
I awoke just before sunrise. I sat outside my tent and ate my granola bar. I packed up my camp and enjoyed an early morning hike back to my car. I spent the rest of the day exploring the Petrified Forest National Park.