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
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 ¼ 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 ½" 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.