I’d only found out there was backcountry camping in Petrified Forest National Park one month prior to our excursion. I instantly began looking up any bits of information I could find. Are dogs allowed? What trails are available? When is the best time to go? What is the permit situation?
National Parks aren’t known for being dog friendly, but PFNP is the most dog friendly national park I’ve come across. Pups are welcome (on leash) on all of the trails along the 20-mile drive through the park as well as anywhere in the backcountry wilderness.
And by anywhere, I truly mean anywhere. In this backcountry, there are no trails. No trails as in you can go anywhere you want to go as long as you camp at least one mile from the trailhead.
The catch? No access to water. I'd have to pack in all that I needed. Not horrible, but not awesome, considering I’d be packing water for myself and two 70-lb dogs. With no access to water and no landscape features to offer shade, I definitely had to be extra cautious of the weather for the hounds.
I was running out of time for the cooler temps of spring, so I thought I’d have to wait until late fall when the highs would dip back under 80. But wait! What is this little gem in the forecast?! 78 degrees on Saturday?! Gasp! That’s in three days! Oh boy, a last minute adventure! This has my name written all over it. I checked the weather in disbelief three times a day until I arrived at the park Saturday morning. The only thing that changed was the addition of an extreme wind warning. Oh joy.
Backcountry permits are free, but visitors have to register at one of the visitor centers so the park is aware of your general location. There are five zones available in the backcountry: four in the northern end of the park and one in the southern end. I acquired a permit and was assigned Zone 2, which is where the Onyx Bridge is located and the location of the route I’d found from Backpacker magazine.
To hike in the northern zones, most backpackers park at the Painted Desert Inn, which is on the edge of a cliff overlooking the painted desert. The trail starts just to the left of the Inn, easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.
The hounds and I cruised down the trail, switchbacking to the valley floor, a route I knew I’d enjoy slightly less on the way back up. Before us was an immense spread of reds, oranges, grays, and browns, colors I would not have appreciated earlier in my life. But here and now I was in awe, even with the bold sunlight bleaching out the view.
CW and Herc were antsy to explore, so off we went. We hustled across a somewhat grassy expanse to Lithodendron Wash, a broad, meandering path of sand, silt, and debris that could be tricky (sticky!) to cross after a good bit of rain. The hounds sniffed and snorted up, down, and around the various hills and mesas while I sought out a refuge from the wind for our home base. Even though it didn’t feel overly hot, I wanted to set up the tent in order to provide shade for the remainder of the afternoon.
After 4 miles of exploring, I found a secluded nook tucked in the hills. The hounds napped and I read. Closer to sunset we emerged for more adventures. I set a GPS point for the tent to ensure I could find it again, then we explored until the sun disappeared. The world was silent. No coyotes yipping, no birds calling out. But the colors from the setting sun made the land seem alive.
Petrified Forest National Park
Entrance fee: $20
Dog friendly: On leash, all trails
Backcountry access: Free permit, no trails, camp 1 mile from trailhead, no water access