Hidden Gems in the Petrified Forest

national park

No matter how much planning and prep you put into a trip, it can be wiped out in an instant if the weather goes awry. We recently re-learned this lesson during our day trip through the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert in Arizona.

We arrived at the national park the night before, parked outside the gates, and were fortunate enough to catch the glorious sunset from the roof of our RV. We anticipated great weather the next morning for our “walk among the trees turned to stone”, and I was excited for my kids to get a hands-on science lesson. However, Mother Nature had other plans. We awoke to the howling of gale force winds rocking our RV.

Despite the blustery morning, we bravely packed up the trailer and headed on our journey, hoping the winds would end once the day warmed up a bit. In the meantime, I braced myself for the groaning and complaining I was sure the kids were about to initiate. Luckily for me, this time they forged ahead with only a little murmuring.

The Visitor Center had a lovely guide who gave us some great information and let us hold some petrified wood she had on display. We watched the educational video explaining the petrification process, and then followed the path out back to look at the first site of wood turned to stone.


While observing the logs, we shared a few comments with an older couple who was leaving as we were coming in. Their thick accent immediately gave them away as Scottish travelers. We exchanged goodbyes and continued our tour of the site.

The wind was so unrelenting that the kids' attention quickly shifted from the petrified wood to a spontaneous game of seeing how far they could lean into the wind without falling over.  They were diagonal to the ground and still not tipping over. It seemed my hope for an educational day were being shifted from petrification to aerodynamics. I surrendered my expectations, and basked in the fact that no one was whining at the moment.


The Petrified Forest is a driving tour, with several marked spots to pull over and view highlights of the stone trees. The park is big enough to sightsee all day, but with the weather limitations, I picked 6-7 of the most interesting spots for us to see.


It so happens that the stops I picked kept us on course to run into our new friends, the Scottish elderly couple, several more times throughout the morning.  Each time we ran into them we’d stop and talk for a few more minutes. They were as enamored with our RV and upcoming internet show as we were with their accents and lively conversation.


The woman, Helena, was especially animated. Despite her tiny stature and advanced age, she had a firecracker personality. She quickly divulged her obsession with cowboy movies and the old West. She’s seen every Western cowboy movie made since 1939. In fact, their whole month long vacation was going to be spent just in Arizona, visiting historic sites or classic scenes from these Western films. She’d even bought herself a Dutch oven skillet to cook over an open flame when she gets back home.

Listening to her talk with such enthusiasm was infectious, but at times, difficult to understand. Her accent was so thick that my girls were entertained just trying to decode what she’d said. Mostly they just giggled and nodded their heads in agreement to whatever she was talking about.

Despite the cold, fierce winds, we were having such a good time that we reluctantly returned to our vehicles each time we needed to move on to the next site. By the end of the tour we felt like fast friends. 

As we left the Petrified Forest I reflected on how the day didn’t go at all how I’d intended, but still turned out to be a pretty good day. Despite the miserable weather, my kids kept a reasonable attitude, obtained a grasp on how wood petrifies, and they made some new international friends. Learning had occurred that day, just in unexpected ways. Yes they learned some pre-historic facts and science, but they also grew in their tolerance to uncomfortable situations like bad weather, and they grew more comfortable in talking to people from other countries and other generations from theirs.

I can’t help but think those lessons, the hidden gems of that day, will serve them more throughout life than the one I had originally planned. I believe it’s those small moments between all the big experiences that shape our journey and make us who we are becoming. That’s the lesson I will treasure from my time spent in the Petrified Forest.

 Images via Shannon Watt

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Hidden Gems in the Petrified Forest

Shannon is a mother of 3 teens, who hit 40 and decided that instead of a "mid-life crisis", she wanted an adventure of a lifetime. She convinced her wonderfully open-minded husband to pack up their house, sell most of their possessions, and travel the USA in an RV for a year or two. Besides homeschooling her kids, running their online program, Watts in the World, Shannon loves to explore new places. Nothing is more exciting than waking up in a new city everyday, and discovering what's great abou ... More

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