North America

White Sands National Park, The Painted Desert and The Petrified Forest

posted by Stu 0 comments

The United States has designated hundreds of parts of the country as national parks, these areas are protected and enforced by federal law. Every single park I have ever been has been beautifully kept and staffed by rangers who are enthusiastic about every thing natural, and particularly everything American. All the national parks charge a fee and this can range from a couple of dollars to $25 like is charged at the Grand Canyon. You can however stump up $80 for an annual pass which gives free entry to every single park. Before you rush off and buy one consider the following. Each national park uses the fees collected for its own development. For example, if you pay the $80 annual fee at the Grand Canyon, the entire fee will go to the Grand Canyon. For that reason, I urge you to find a less visited park and buy your annual pass there. Thats not to say the GC is less deserving, not at all, but millions of people pay entrance there annually. Some parks get a few thousand per year and the fees would go very far.

If you google “top ten national parks” you will see a list of what someone believes is the best national parks, usually selected from a list of the most popular and almost always topped by the Grand Canyon. Thats not a problem, I would likely agree with most of those selected, but on this trip I wanted to do something a little different. I planned the entire road trip around places off the normal tourist trail, places where we could lose ourselves and places you had to want to get to.

The attribute “great natural wonder” is thrown around far too much these days, but in a corner of New Mexico we found a 275 square mile white sand desert which lays claim to being the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Due to the fact the sand dunes are constantly moving (thanks to wind) plants are largely unable to grow. This makes for a spectacular, crystal white paradise of sugar soft sand forming huge sweeping dunes for miles and miles.

The White Sand dunes are the basis for a great number of things such as weddings, barbecues, family time together and missile testing. Evolution is all but confirmed as the few animals which can survive the harsh environment have turned white in colour.

We were at the white sands for three reasons. First of all i’ve never seen a white desert, secondly because it is somewhere that not that many people go to and thirdly, to go sledging.

When you enter the park you can buy a skid pan for $17, you then go bomb down sand dunes, break a leg and no one is liable. Upon leaving the park the store will buy back the skid pan for $5. So naturally we bought one, drove deep into the dunes, parked up and then made a beeline for the largest dune we could find. Within no time at all Jack was upside down and in mid air flying through the air as he hit a sandy bump. Seconds later he was rubbing the sand from his eyes and talking about how awesome he was and he was doing that again. Toby had a few goes in the sled but wasn’t so sure, he found a great way to slide down on his bum and was content with that. Had the sun not been around a hundred degrees (Fahrenheit) We could’ve stayed all day but it was ridiculously hot and we had somewhere else to be.

I still smile now when I look back to the dunes, it was the most fun I had seen the kids have in ages and really lit up their faces. What made it all the more amazing is that there was no one else around, I wish in hindsight I had given us a little more time, taken a BBQ, some music, and we could’ve taken a day out from life. I think I’ll go back one day and do just that.

Heading West into Arizona we were sat at 75mph in cruise control (75mph is the speed limit in both New Mexico and Arizona) and a little box pops up on the control screen saying ‘almost at max speed’. We have a Ford Escape SUV and I had already had 110mph out of it a few days earlier. So I was wondering what was going on. I figured I would sort it out when we stopped and continued driving. After a while I turned up the satellite radio and another box pops up ‘40% of max volume allowed only’. Pissed off I continued and a short while later things felt a little hot, the air conditioning was barely blowing and try as I might I just could not fathom it. I had to sort things out.

I am posting this because people need to know how shit Ford are and how they may have single handedly invented the biggest piece of bullshit ever invented by anyone. Turns out there is a thing called MyKey which when Ive been driving I have been messing about with. What this does is limit the car ‘to promote better driving’. Thing is, once you turn the engine off it saves anything you have set and makes it impossible to remove the restrictions unless you have the admin key (which I obviously don’t have) I know what you may be thinking – Don’t drive fast or blast the tunes. But consider this. Trucks in the US aren’t speed restricted (mostly) and you are passing one at 75mph. The truck decides to move over, what can you do? Nothing. Thats what. Not a single thing. I can now no longer over take if something is driving at 70mph and I am now risking our lives every time I pass a truck. What about the air conditioning? Well, some dick head at Ford decided that if your fuel level falls below 100 miles remaining it limits air conditioning to save fuel. So now you can drive further, but have to sit in a boiling vehicle in the desert until you find a services which are often fifty miles or more apart. And the music – Well I now can’t listen to music since 40% is like a whisper in party.It’s the biggest load of bullshit I have ever come across and I cannot believe anyone thought ‘hey, lets make our unsafe drivers safe whilst making our safe ones unsafe’ – absolute bell ends. Pure and simple and I would never buy a ford because of this.

The next two stops on our list was the Painted desert and Petrified Forest. I have to crack the obvious though lame joke that I was a bit nervous about going to the latter……..

Anyway, conveniently the two places are part of the same national park and both are equally gorgeous. Just off the I-40 the roads goes about 28 miles through the national park leaving you just 15 miles from getting back on the I-40.

The painted desert is almost canyon like with the various layers of sediment that have been deposited over millennia. The land has been dated to around 200 million years ago and is the location that one of the earliest dinosaur fossils has been found. There are some short treks in the area and view points where you really can gaze in amazement at the stunning, unique and ancient formations. Some of the rocks have petroglyphs and there is ruins of a small village dated to 1250 AD.

There is nice little touch as a rusty old car rots by the roadside signifying the remnants of US-66 (Route 66) that ran right through the park parallel to the now I-40. An interesting point of note to any parent that has been forced to watch the disney movie ‘cars’ over and over and over again. The movie, though animated has some truth behind it. Route 66 used to pass through towns, when the interstate was built these towns were bypassed and in no time at all became remnants of what they once were and now are empty towns of nothing but old decrepit buildings, rusty vehicles and an imagination of a vibrant community that once was.

After passing under the interstate you get to the petrified forest. I had absolutely no idea what petrified wood was, but essentially it is ancient wood which has fossilised and become (in Jacks words) ‘minerals and crystals and stuff’. He’s actually on the money as the tree stumps have completely fossilised into colourful mineral looking pieces of magic. It is illegal to take any petrified wood from the area and this carries a prison sentence, random checks are carried out and upon entry you are given a form to fill out to report anyone you see removing anything or looking suspicious. Guaranteed we got reported as Jack looks dodgy even when sleeping.

What is actually amazing though is that so much of the forest remains. It is all in logs and stumps, but evidence of humans in the area go back 13,000 years making the petrified forest one of the oldest places inhabited places in the country.

An interesting observation comes courtesy of some dude mapping the area for the government in the 1800’s where he told of a “remarkable, painted desert and its trees turned to stone”.

Research continues in the park which will only promise to uncover more of the fascinating history of this unique world where dinosaurs once roamed the forested and volcanic area. It really is a step back in time and Jack was spellbound.

It had been a long couple of days of travel, of a shit car, of time changes and some spectacular national parks. Sitting now with a cold Budweiser and knowing what we have done since I have to smile at the fact we had the places largely to ourselves. Did that make the experience better? Absolutely yes, but the white sands national park, the petrified forest and the painted deserts are three special places which I doubt we will ever forget. Jack has already listed them on his ‘to come back to’ list and I just hope that when he does – I get an invite too 🙂

 

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