Petrified Forest National Park, Ariz. - Lightning, powerful winds and pelting rain make for a rough night of camping in the vast and desolate wilderness of the Painted Desert.
But, come morning, every minute of Mother Nature's dramatic show proves worth the discomfort. The wind has dwindled to a whisper and an eerie, yet peaceful, quiet fills the air.
Sunrise washes a soft light over the park's clay hills, illuminating the horizontal bands of reds, pinks and whites. Tall grasses reach toward the new, blue sky, which seems to stretch to infinity.
"There's nothing like the color of the Painted Desert in the morning or at sunset," says Park Ranger Hallie Larsen, who has worked in the Petrified Forest National Park for more than three years and often escapes to the wilderness for solo backpacking trips. "It's beautiful, but in a surreal way. It's different from anywhere else."
The north end of the park is known as the Painted Desert, a multihued land named by early Spanish explorers for it's rich, warm colors. The middle and southern parts of the park are best known for their abundant supply of wildly colorful petrified wood.
The 93,533-acre park in eastern Arizona just south of the Navajo Indian Reservation was designated a national monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962. About 50,000 acres of the park have been set aside for preservation as wilderness.
In the fall, the area's cool breezes are brisk and invigorating, providing relief from the heat still plaguing Phoenix, four hours to the south.
But you don't have to camp, or even hike deep into the wilderness, to enjoy the scenery and pure desert air.
Visitors can drive the 28-mile paved road through the park, stopping at any of the 16 maintained points along the way. Some stops feature spectacular vistas of the Painted Desert's valleys, while others offer views of American Indian petroglyphs and the petrified wood - rainbow-colored stone logs that were transformed from wood 250 million years ago.
Arizona was then where present-day Panama is today, and was a tropical land where dinosaurs roamed.
When the area flooded, tall trees were uprooted and buried under silt, mud and volcanic ash. The logs' decay was slowed as oxygen was cut off and chemical reactions slowly turned the wood to stone.
Erosion continues to unearth logs in the park. Streaks of white quartz sparkles in the sunlight along with vibrant colors ranging from mustard yellow and purple to red and orange.
Before early explorers and settlers began removing the wood, purple amethyst, smoky quartz and citrine crystals also were found nestled in the logs' hollows.
But no matter how tempted you are to have a piece of the treasure for yourself, park rangers will beg you to resist. Twelve tons of petrified wood are removed from the park each year. Taking even the smallest piece of petrified wood from the park can result in a minimum fine of $275, or arrest.
Brightly colored polished wood, as well as rough, raw pieces are harvested from nearby private land and sold at the park's gift shops or at commercial dealers along Interstate 40 and U.S. Highway 180.
If you plan to get out of your car and set out on foot, there are seven marked trails, ranging from easy half-mile walks to mile-long, moderately difficult hikes.
A must-see is the one-mile Blue Mesa loop, which begins with views from above before winding down between purplish-blue hills resembling images of another planet.
The largest concentration of petrified wood can be found along the flat, half-mile Long Logs trail near the south entrance of the park.
For those looking for a bit of adventure and solitude, hike down the Kachina Trail, which begins at the Painted Desert Inn museum. The first few minutes of the trail are steep, but quickly level out. It goes on for a mile and from there, thousands of acres of wilderness land are yours to explore.
This is the only area of the park where visitors are allowed to camp. A free backpacking permit can be obtained from one of the park's two visitor centers.
There is no shade and no water in the wilderness area, so make sure you're prepared. Sunscreen is a must, as is your own water supply.
For Ms. Larsen, wilderness hiking is the preferred way to explore.
"It gives you a chance to go out and be by yourself for good or bad," she says. "It's a memory you're going to hold onto."
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