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
3.5 hours northeast of Phoenix is a section of land I could easily see myself driving right through without a thought of stopping to look around – from the car it looks fairly flat and somewhat monochromatic.
I would, however, be missing out. In a big way.
Thankfully the National Park Service has set aside this chunk of land as the Petrified Forest National Park. And SUPER thankfully they welcome dogs on all of the trails! <3
The petrified wood was fascinating to see up close -- so many colors appears from the minerals in the water way-back-when. And the rest of the landscape was equally as unique, though these pictures do not do it justice!!
There were several short hikes (about one mile each) and quite a few points of interest/scenic overlooks. We spent much more time exploring than I expected (in a good way!) and had to hustle through the last few points of interest, which was a bummer. However, I will definitely return!
Embarking on what I considered to be our first real day of adventure, we aimed for Emerald Lake. The journey there was, of course, spectacular. No amount of rain or stormy weather could diminish the beauty of this wilderness.
I pulled into the Emerald Lake parking area and started to cross every finger and toe. It looked busy – definitely hoping that what I’d read about the touristy areas was true: 20 feet away from the main viewpoint you’ll encounter hardly anyone. I saw the trail head, then off to the left was a bridge leading to several very nice lodge buildings. Fancy. Canada, you are one legit classy broad.
But first things first, I had to pee. I spotted an outhouse by the trail head. Jackpot.
Let it be noted that not only do Canadian's have very pretty lodges, but their outhouses also are really freaking nice! There may not have been running water or plumbing of any sort, but each one I stopped at was clean and equipped with plenty of TP and hand sanitizer. Small but significant comforts.
I assessed the trail map by the bathrooms and walked back to collect the pups. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the start of our first routine: park car – walk to the bathroom at the trail head – assess maps – return to collect the dogs – hike!
Let’s rock and roll.
We shimmied past the crowd of people that had collected by the maps, chatted with a park ranger for a moment, and continued down the path. The first thing I noticed was the silence. Or rather, the lack of human noises. It was like everyone had disappeared. Bliss.
The trail was wide enough for the pups to walk along my sides most of the time. Starting out, the trail was mostly dry with just a few puddles and muddy sections along the way. The trees blocked most of the rain, not that I minded it too much – nothing could distract me from the scenery!
Aptly named, Emerald Lake was a vision of color! Standing there looking directly at it, it was still hard to accept the colors as real. I just stopped and stared many times along the way.
We came across a few other hikers here an there. Many seemed to turn around once they reached the end of the lake opposite the parking lot and trail head. At first I wondered if I’d missed something. Then decided it didn’t matter because I now hardly saw anyone. That wasn’t a bonus just for the peace, but also because now the trail was getting quite muddy and I was becoming quite a mess!
The dogs were barreling through not just some but ALL of the mud puddles. Cool Whip now had brown legs and if my pants hadn’t been a dark color already they’d have been brown as well from all the dirt and water the hellions splashed up. Perrrrfect. My car is about to get really dirty!
Thankfully we made it back to the car just in time for it to stop raining. :P
Seriously thought, it was a nice chance to brush off some of the mud, give the hooligans a snack, and make out next plan of attack: setting up our home for the next few days! Tunnel Mountain Campground, here we come!
The hardest part of a road trip is somewhere between hour #2 and hour #3 of driving. The first hour is grand. I’m excited to start the adventure. I usually have a cup of coffee next to me. And, most importantly, I don’t have to pee yet. Life is amazing! Then it starts to sink in just how long I’m going to be driving for the day, and I’ve likely finished my coffee, which means I’m probably starting to feel the urge to pee. This also means I’m about to hit a stretch with limited stops for a bathroom, because that’s how those things work. :P And yet, that painful space between hour #2 & #3 is completely worth it.
Driving to Canada was no different. Day #1 was pretty straightforward – go north to Idaho. But note to self for Day #2: don’t get so caught up in the beauty of the landscape that you miss your next turn again!
Day #2 I forgot my note to self. It was just too beautiful! New note to self: review your entire route before leaving and bring paper maps – you WILL lose cell reception!
About two miles into Canada I realized I hadn’t set up an international phone plan – whoops! About this same time, a massive downpour began. Despite the intense rain that made driving a headache, the storm delivered an epic lightning show and several intense thunder booms. Canada is definitely going to be a wild ride!
We made out of the storm just in time to arrive at our first campsite – Redstreak Campground in Kootenay National Park. I figured I had about 15 minutes to assess our site and get the tent set up – the storm gave me 10. The tent was soaked before I could even set up the rainfly. Ugh. Major downer. Not how I wanted to start this portion of the trip. We still had 6 more nights of camping ahead of us. I had gotten the dogs rain jackets for such weather, but I was not prepared for this rough start. I was tired and frustrated, and the dogs were already cold and wet, so I considered getting a hotel for the night.
Thankfully the campground was just a few minutes up the mountain from town, so we were able to drive down to see if we could secure a motel and then drive back up to grab the tent…while it was STILL raining heavily! I felt like I was giving in too easily, but as soon as I opened the door to our motel, I didn’t care! Motel Bavaria wound up being one of the best hotels on our trip. Great price, friendly front desk, spacious and clean room (with a fireplace!), free wi-fi, dog-friendly, what more can you ask for?!
I strung up the tent in the bathroom, leaving a nice muddy mess with a dusting of pine needles – but we were inside and able to dry out! Definitely had to make time in the morning though to clean up the mess. This little kink in my plans gave me a few moments of panic as to what the rest of the trip would be like, but once I was able to take my time in the morning and prep better for the new day, I was quite optimistic. If we can survive that mess, we can handle anything.