Petrified Forest National Park High Point Trip Report

Pilot Rock (6,234 ft)

Date: December 29, 2002
Author: Dave Covill

Petrified Forest, with it's sister sub-park Painted Desert, straddles I-40 about 40 miles W of the New Mexico state line, about 20 miles E of Holbrook AZ, at exit # 311. This area is a badlands and plateau system, with petrified wood found literally everywhere in the park. The roads in the park are mostly up high on the plateau, on the more resistant Entrada SS formation. The so-called shales of the underlying Chinle formation, very soft and clay-like, have eroded out into fantastic shapes and colors. There is about 500' of relief throughout most of the park. A paved road winds from the visitor center on the N side of I-40 south about 30 miles to another visitor center, at the park exit on AZ 180. You can drive through the park in either direction. The best petrified wood is to be found in the S end, with many logs of at least 2' in diameter and over 10' in length to be seen at the more popular tourist pullouts. This park probably has the highest proportion of visitors who never get more than 100' from their vehicle, or off of a paved path, let alone out of their car. It is truly the Great American Tourist Attraction. One can see much of what the park has to offer from within one's car. Not us, though; we had a hill to climb.

The highpoint is Pilot Rock, in the far NW corner of the park, about 6-7 air miles NW of the Chinde Point pullout, which is the northernmost point of the road system. Pilot Rock is the sole area in the park that has been topped by a younger volcanic flow, and this ~100' thick rock layer has capped the shales beneath it to form a somewhat jagged and rugged mesa of about a half mile in diameter, and with relief of about 600' from the stream of the plains below. It is visible from almost everywhere in the park, certainly from the N end, and can be seen for many miles both E and W on I-40. It is a very worthy highpoint, as nowhere else in the park is there ground within 300' as high.

I only know of two people who have been to Pilot Rock, and they both came in from the W on private ranch property as far as the meager road system would take them, and then still had about 4 mile walks to get to the highpoint. We toured the park on Saturday afternoon, intending to return early Sunday to hike to the HP. I spoke with one of the head rangers, Ted Bellitch, a veteran backcountry hiker and true gentleman, who offered Beckie & I much good advice. He had made it to Pilot Rock twice, both times via an overnight backpack. He gave us highly-annotated copies of a 15' map with many interesting features to watch for on the hike. Hah! With all the snow and lack of time, we hardly had time to look at anything. He wished us luck, and we drove to a motel in Holbrook. Tons of motels there, shouldn't ever be a problem to score a room. We ate at the El Rancho, right by I-40; good Mexican food.

Between the Chinde Point pullout and Pilot Rock lies many square miles of badlands terrain. The most rugged of this terrain is directly between the two. We chose to divert our path somewhat W and then N, instead of walking straight NW to the HP. This caused us to probably walk about 7 miles on the way in, and about 8 on the way out, as we searched for easier terrain. Let me say this right up front; this is an epic hike, especially in winter. The sun set around 5:30, and it was quite dark by 6:30. They will not let you into the park until the gates open at 8:00AM, year-round. The park ostensibly closes at 5:00PM, year-round, but they allow folks who are in at that time to proceed out to one of the two exits. There was 4-8" of recent snow on the ground, and this proved to be a blessing in disguise. The ground was frozen hard, and the washes, which is what they call the streams there, were ice-covered, although they were mostly 1-2" deep and 5-20' wide, and crossing them would not have been a problem. If the ground was merely wet and not frozen, I do not think it would have been possible to get to Pilot Rock. The shales are really clays, and incredibly slippery. The terrain appears to be relatively flat from a distance, but looking at the 7.5' topo, or walking in the back country of the park, one can see that it is just a jumble of small hills, ridges, and valleys, and the clays erode out with very steep sides, up to 60-70 degree slopes sometimes.

Since you are never really any higher at any one point than you are a mile away, it is difficult to tell exactly where you are. It's like you are in an ocean, with large swells bringing you up periodically for a look-see, but all you see are the wave crests of just more water. Those of you who know me know I don't own a GPS, and that I rely upon map & compass to navigate. Well, I'm here to tell you, this is one place where you need a GPS, and it would have saved us a bunch of time later on if we had had one. You simply can't tell from the map which little contour is the one you are on, or is the one you just passed over.

We drove to the park entrance and visitor center from I-40, about 0.5 mile, and then on 1.7 to Chinde turnoff, and then 0.4 to the end and a good parking area. We left the car at about 8:30AM at Chinde Point. We were well dressed for the weather, which as expected actually got quite nice during the day, perhaps 50d and mostly sunny. It was about 30° when we started out. We brought several quarts of water in one backpack, which turned out to have been inadequate. We actually melted snow in the afternoon for additional water needs. We had two Motorola walkie-talkies, which came in handy. We had extra warm clothes, and had the foresight to pack extra socks, something we don't always do. Chinde Point is on the mesa top, and it's about 400' down to the first flat valley known as Lithodendron Wash, which is actually by far the biggest stream in the N end of the park. It is quite visible from below, and we didn't think we would have a problem navigating our way back to it, since it was so prominent and visible from our entire route. More on that later.

We carefully descended via a gulley just W of our car the ~400' down to the plains below, and walked about a mile to cross Lithodendron Wash. We headed WNW to avoid the highest of the shale ridges between us and Pilot Rock, visible on the topo as the 5,800' contour. For the rest of the hike, we would be mostly walking up and down over ~ 20-100' bumps, skirting them where possible, and occasionally staying in reasonably flat valleys for a mile or more at a time. We reached a point where there was a watershed divide about 3 miles due S of Pilot Rock, and about 1 mile E of the western park boundary edge. We descended in the valley northward to where we were about 1 mile from Digger Wash, and Beckie chose to rest here [Rest Spot] and wait, with the pack, for me to return from Pilot Rock. It was about 12:30PM. We stayed in touch via the squawkboxes, and I made good time to the W ridge of Pilot Rock.

From here, it was a modest scramble up to the top, with me never really needing to touch anything with my hands. Call it Class 2. We made excellent use of our trekking poles all day long, and I used them to good effect here to power my way up. The top has a cairn of volcanic rocks about 6' high, with a peculiar wooden structure on top of these remotely resembling a wooden 3-legged stool about 3' high. I saw no register or the BM. There was some snow on top, although not much. The rocks had a lot of orange lichens on them, which was really beautiful. I could easily see the mesa at Chinde Point where our car beckoned me homeward. I could also for the first time see due W to Humphreys Peak, HP of AZ. It was about 2:15PM.

I headed down the slopes, and felt a twinge in my left leg partway down. It felt like a groin pull, but was on the top front of my leg. I would later learn it was a hip flexor muscle pull. Not good. I did not slip or hit it; it just evolved. Perhaps it was from carrying the pack, through the snow, and trying to go as fast as possible near the HP, after I had already come many miles, and let's face it, none of us is in as good a shape in December as we are in the summer. Soon I could only walk at a very slow pace. It was difficult to pick my left leg up, and I was powering with the poles big-time. I radioed to Beckie to put on the pack and begin to hike back S up the valley to the divide. I reached the Rest Spot about 3:30PM. It had taken us about 4 hours to reach that point in the morning, and if we could make it back in 4 hours, tired, with wetter snow and darkness approaching, it would be a miracle, and it would also be 7:30PM, a full hour after pitch-darkness. No problem, we can see the mesa, and we have lamps. When Beckie got to the divide, I was at the Rest Spot. I urged her to continue on S into the valley beyond her, and I finally caught her about 1 mile S of the divide. We had chosen to go this way to avoid the rugged terrain in the middle of the park's badlands, and the map appeared to indicate that we wouldn't have much relief to negotiate all the way down to the junction of our valley and Lithodendron Wash, where we would turn E and walk about 3 miles to the base of the mesa. I popped 3 Advils, and they helped somewhat, as I was able to continue at a modest pace. Beckie carried the pack virtually the entire way back, excepting some steep spots at the end.

We reached the turning point where our south trending wash flattened out, and we could bear SE, cross the flat valley side, and intersect the broad Lithodendron Wash valley system, at about 5:45PM, after the sun had set. We turned and took a bearing on the mesa of due SE, and headed for it. As it got dark, we could still see the bulk of the mesa in front of us, now about 3 miles away, but there were many small, 50 to 100' gulleys and ridges between. About 7:00PM, perhaps 2 miles from the car, it began to snow lightly. I still didn't think it would be much of a problem, as it would be difficult to miss the mesa; either by going too far beyond it to the E, or by missing it to the W. We followed a S trending small wash and finally came upon shallow, iced over, little old Lithodendron Wash. Hah! It was now ice-free, perhaps over 100' wide, and about 8" deep uniformly and flowing rather swiftly. No choice, in and across we went. With our good OR Velcro gaiters, it didn't really come over the boots much, but it seemed to seep in a bit, and of course, after a full day in snow, no leather boot waterproofing job will hold up perfectly. We now had damp toes at a minimum, temp was about 35° and dropping, still lightly snowing. Hmmm?..

We continued ESE towards where we presumed the edge of the mesa would be. We encountered nothing but a broad valley for about a mile as expected, and came to a steep hillside, although it was clay, and not the firm, rocky slope we had come down almost 12 hours earlier. It was now about 8:00PM, and up we went. It got very steep and slippery, and when we topped out, we were on a small mesa with no obvious way down. Not good. We tramped the edge, found a reasonable way off, and proceeded further ESE. Another mesa, up we went, another false tiny plateau. Again, we got off, found a decent path, and slid up yet another clayish snow-covered hillside. This time, it was wide and flat on top, and evidence of some grass and little bushes here and there. Could it be? Yes! After a 100 yard walk due SE, we got to a paved road, barely discernable til we stumbled onto it. Which way to go? We figured we were on the mesa plateau, and presumed correctly that there wasn't enough mesa to the far E side to have hit it there, so, being on the W edge of it, we went left, back NE on the road. Two miles later, a sign for Pintada Point, and soon after, the turn down the mile to Chinde Point. Got to the car at about 10:00PM, exhausted, cold, moder- ately dehydrated, but safe.

Nothing left to do but drive out to a motel, right? Hah! There is a gate across the road by the entrance station! What to do, but get out, look around the sides, hope that the soil was decomposed SS and not shale, and around the Rodeo went in 4WD Low. No sweat, only about a 30' detour to get around some planted shrubs and placed rocks. It would have stopped an RV, but a passenger car could get around it in decent weather. No match for the cohp-ing beast I own. On to town and a motel. Turns out that I-40 had developed a " sheet of black ice rime on it, and when we headed E in the morning towards Albuquerque, there were at least 50 vehicles off the road, many overturned. Nasty! Glad we had holed up. It turned OK by 9:00AM, and having slept in til fairly late, we were OK, and drove home in 10 hours to Denver.

We got lucky. We had bitten off far more than we should have. I should have turned back where Beckie had sat down. I hadn't counted on snow, on my bad muscle pull, on running out of water, on the slow pace due to the slippery clay and wild topography. I had not planned in a safety factor at all. I did not have a GPS, which would have gotten us to the car by 8:00PM instead of 10:00. If it hadn't have snowed, we also would have gotten back about 8:00, all else equal. Without my muscle pull, we probably would have been so close to the mesa by dark and snow, that we surely couldn't have missed it, and also been out by 8:00 or sooner. With GPS, no snow, and no muscle pull, we would have been back by twi- light, 6:15 probably. It all compounded. In short, I had Mitchlerized this peak! (sorry, John.)

We had great clothing, a map and compass and the knowledge of how to use them, and didn't panic at all. We kept going in the direction we knew had to be right, and we had simply missed the edge of the mesa by a half mile to the short side. We had not gone as far as it had seemed, with all the negative factors slowing us down. We had enough batteries to see at night for 20-30 hours easy. We had tons of food. We could have huddled in the bivvy sack and space blankets if needed. We put on our extra wool socks once across the Wash, and that helped a great deal. The terrain was tough, but do-able if you looked around a bit to each side for a decent way.

I would highly recommend this hike in summer, when it would be light out til close to 9:00 or 10:00 even. It would be hot, so bring lots of water then. Do not ever come here if has rained recently, as it would be worse than snow, which at least allowed us a little traction at all times. If you come in winter, get a backcountry permit and camp way out there. The only problem there is that there would be little water available other than snow to melt. The water in the washes was a dark brownish red, so full of silt it would have clogged a filter in a heartbeat. The colors are fantastic, the topography other-worldly, and there literally was a melon-sized chunk of petrified wood, or bigger, every 50', the whole way.

Hoot! - as Trapper would say.