This relatively easy, paved path into the heart of the otherworldly Blue Mesa member of the Chinle rock formation. Walk through and around badlands that look like strange melted ice cream, and spot chunks of petrified wood all along the ground.If you spend any time in the Colorado Plateau, you’re going to eventually become familiar with the Chinle Formation. A rock layer deposited more than 200 million years ago, the Chinle Formation is visible in many of the region’s southern badlands. Back then, the region was full of rivers that carried water northwest toward a large, shallow sea, leaving sand, silt and mud behind. Many of these layers give the Painted Desert its distinctive colors — and the layer known as the Blue Mesa Member is the second-oldest of these layers.
Laid down between 220 and 225 million years ago, the Blue Mesa Member is full of mud and sandstones that range from a distinctive blue-gray to green and even purple … and the best place to get up close and personal with this layer is right here at the Blue Mesa Trailhead.
This paved interpretive lollipop loop begins atop the Blue Mesa itself, then ducks down inside some of the canyons for a better view of the canyon floors.
To the north, the flat desert seems fairly normal — but to your south, the wonderland-ish geologic playground of the Blue Mesa stands in stark, almost surreal contrast.
Follow the paved path down into the Blue Mesa formation, and at 0.2 mile keep right at the junction to begin the loop.
In here, it’s easy to think you’ve been teleported to another planet. The rock formations are absolutely surreal in every way — and if you’re lucky enough to be traveling the trail on your own, it’s tempting to pretend you’re in a Matt Damon in The Martian sort of scenario (please don’t try to grow potatoes in your own poop, though).
While there isn’t a TON of petrified wood here, keen eyes will be able to spot some ancient logs hiding out in some of the canyon branches.
Interpretive signs along the route explain some of the area’s strange geology — and how the clay in the landscape actually expands and contracts during wet weather, causing even further erosion (and the occasional buckled roadway, as well).
Stay on the established path to prevent additional erosion in this delicate landscape.
By 0.8 mile you’ll close the lollipop loop and make your way back to the trailhead.
There are no developed campgrounds inside Petrified Forest National Park. Backcountry camping is allowed in the Petrified Forest Wilderness Area. Free permits are required and can be obtained at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, Painted Desert Inn, and Rainbow Forest Museum up to an hour before the park closes. The Park Service has a page set up with nearby National Forest and State Park campgrounds for further information.
From I-40, take exit 311 toward Petrified Forest National Park. Park Road begins heading north of the interstate toward the Painted Desert Visitor Center and loops back south, crossing underneath the freeway at 6.1 miles. Continue another 9.7 miles on Petrified Forest Road and take a left onto Blue Mesa Scenic Road. Trailhead is 2.7 miles later.
With recent wildfire damage and ongoing waves of COVID-19 infections and restrictions, National Forest, National Park, and other public land closures, restrictions, or social distancing guidelines may be in-effect.
If infection rates are on the rise, please do your best to remain local for your hikes. If you do travel, please be mindful of small gateway communities and avoid as much interaction as you can. Also remember to be extra prepared with supplies so you don't have to stop somewhere outside your local community for gas, food, or anything else.
Please be sure to contact the local land management agency BEFORE you head out, as these conditions are likely to change without enough notice for us to fully stay on top of them. Thanks, and stay safe!
Click here to read the current CDC guidelines for traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic.