After searching for new and fresh images on federal lands for more than two decades, I can say that there seems to be two types of national parks: those that are heavily visited and those that are too often overlooked in favor of the big names, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone.
One of the less well-known precious gems is Petrified Forest National Park on the eastern edge of Arizona. Weighing in at about 300 square miles, one can easily drive the single road in this compact national treasure from end-to-end in less than half a day. Ah, but then you would be missing all the fun!
President Theodore Roosevelt invoked the Antiquities Act to create Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906 to protect enormous fossilized trees that have actually been turned into brilliant multicolored stone by some 220 million years of water, heat and pressure. The Petrified Forest became a national park in 1962. The park is a treasure trove of the fossilized bones and remains of dinosaurs and other Triassic creatures—such as the recently discovered skull of a phytosaur named Gumby. A trip here can be a fascinating experience for anyone.
The greatest concentration of petrified trees is found along the southern third of the park’s 28-mile roadway. The Long Logs trail, an easy 1-1/2-mile stroll, is best photographed in morning light, while Crystal Forest with its undulating three-quarter-mile loop benefits from late afternoon light.
Even with fast shutter speeds possible under the often bright light at the Petrified Forest, using a tripod will yield better results. This is especially true if you use HDR to even out some of the harsher contrasts.
The northernmost portion of Petrified Forest features a great chunk of the flaming red Painted Desert with many scenic viewpoints to explore. Cross-country hiking is encouraged. Bring your GPS and have fun. These deeply eroded and colorful badlands look best in late afternoon and evening light through sunset. Images made with side lighting tend to show the dramatic shapes and textures best.
Another prime photo spot is the stunning scenery of multi-hued Blue Mesa, reached by a short eastbound spur road off the main track. With fascinating colors and forms offering an endless wealth of compositions, Blue Mesa is a photographer’s playground. The various pullouts and an easy one-mile paved trail feature views in all directions, making Blue Mesa a worthy shoot in both early morning and late afternoon.
Morning light in the Petrified Forest is usually clean, but can be harsh. Clouds often build up during the afternoon and can make for dramatic skies—a perfect combination with the many Painted Desert scenes. Strong winds may blow at any time.
Spring and fall offer comfortable temperatures. Wildflowers usually begin to bloom in earnest in April. Summer can be very hot, but the monsoon season of July and August in the Southwest can make for exciting skies and prize-winning images. Just be careful not to expose yourself to lightning.
As a means of safeguarding the irreplaceable natural treasures found here, Petrified Forest National Park has restricted hours, which vary seasonally. Find the hours here: http://www.nps.gov/pefo/planyourvisit/hours.htm. There are two small coffee shops, but no lodging within the park. Holbrook, Arizona—a quick 25-minute drive west on both I-40 and Route 180—offers a wide selection of modern motels. Holbrook also contains a remnant of historic Route 66, including the quirky and colorful Wigwam Motel.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been honored to be a 2015 artist-in-residence at Petrified Forest National Park and recently spent a few weeks there.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. More of Jerry’s work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. E mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.