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Earth Notes: The Backwoods of the Petrified Forest

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A walk in the woods doesn’t usually happen in a landscape of starkly beautiful desert mesas dotted with narrow-leafed yucca and rabbitbrush.

But in one of Northern Arizona’s national parks a stroll through the backcountry will take you past fossilized beds of freshwater clams, as well as mushroom-shaped erosional formations called hoodoos. And the forest is a random scatter of tiny slivers, brick-sized chunks and hefty portions of logs, all of which look more like they fell from the sky than rose from the ground.

Most visitors have experienced Arizona’s 160,000-acre Petrified Forest National Park as a driving safari along the lone 28-mile road that cuts through the park’s core. But a new initiative is letting visitors experience the “backwoods” of this intriguing fossilized forest. That’s thanks to off-trail guided hikes in a program that’s been introduced by the recently formed Petrified Forest Field Institute.

As well as educational day hikes, fossil-digging workshops and photography classes are on offer – all aimed at embracing a sense of unstructured exploration in these bizarre badlands.

The tours take hikers through dense smatterings of petrified wood and parts of the park’s newly acquired lands that were previously off limits – like the sandy moonscape of Red Basin.

It’s a sea change in the park’s approach to preserving its iconic petrified wood. Park staff hope that rather than increasing wood theft, these immersive visits will prevent it, by giving the public a new in-depth and up-close appreciation of this most unusual of natural resources.

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