Rock-hounding is strictly forbidden. Collecting petrified wood and/or rocks of any kind within the boundaries of Escalante Petrified Forest is strictly forbidden. As of 2020, there are plenty of places in Utah where you can go and respectfully collect small amounts of petrified wood for your personal collections (click here for details or check with local BLM offices), but this is not one of them.
Trip Report: Escalante Petrified State Forest
- Date: January 28, 2020
- Activity: Winter Day Hiking
- Day-Use Fee: $8, payable at self-pay station
- Trail Name(s): Petrified Forest and Sleeping Rainbows Loop (1.75 miles total)
- Petrified Forest Trail (1 mile loop), rapidly ascends 200 feet before winding lazily across a mesa littered with petrified wood; Trail Conditions: a muddy mess with occasional intervals of snow and ice; I recommend avoiding it on warm (above freezing) afternoons and in the spring
- Sleeping Rainbows Trail ( 0.75 miles) loop off of the Petrified Forest Trail at the top of the mesa; this rougher, less-trafficked trail steeply descends off of the back of the mesa to an overlook before rapidly returning to the top of the mesa and the Petrified Forest Trail. Trail Conditions: a steep snowy scramble with fresh untracked snow of variable depths (2″ and 24″) between rocks and boulders (spoiler alert: some of the boulders are petrified wood).
- Location: Southern Utah between Bryce Canyon National Park and Capital Reef National Park (Two miles northwest of the town of Escalante off State Route 12). Address: 710 N. Reservoir Road, Escalante, UT 84726
- Access and Amenities (winter): Parking lots were plowed and completely empty, roads were mostly plowed. The reservoir was completely frozen with 8″ thick ice, so I was surprised to find functioning water spigots even though the temperatures were above freezing (I hosed off my very muddy boots before returning to my car)
- Campgrounds: Open and 100% empty ($20 per night, $28 for RVs/hook-ups);
- Visitor Center: Closed the entire day I was there
“Am I in the right place?” I wondered, as I turned onto Reservoir Road just South of Escalante. The pavement looked like it was going to dead end at the barn of a working farm, or maybe the field behind it…
“Hmmm,” I stopped, uncertain, before pulling off on the shoulder of the road. Maybe the GPS was wrong? I wasn’t going to drive into the middle of someone’s farm and make myself a nuisance without double-checking with a “real” map, so I pulled out my Utah Street Atlas & Gazetteer (paper maps)… Reservoir Road to Wide Hollow Reservoir… I was definitely in the right place.
It wasn’t until I drove between the house and the barn, and down the length of the fields that the big sign announcing my arrival at the State Park became obvious. The gate to the park was open, and I followed the signs to the self-pay station. I paid the $8 day-use fee, still unsure what exactly I was paying for, but I hoping for a privy and a nice hike. Although the place was deserted (both the day-use area and the campground), there was an unlocked privy at the far end of the campground, so things were off to a good start ;)
As I set off from the trail-head, I was full of curiosity. Was the petrified forest still there? Had it been pillaged and ruined by ignorant tourists and greedy rock-hounds? The name of the park was intriguing, but the descriptions I found online were thin and though I’d picked up the map for the self-guided tour, which showed me the numbered points of interest (POIs), but didn’t include any descriptions of them…
Petrified Forest Trail
As I set off from the parking lot, the trail was quite snowy, with a mushy blanket of 4″ – 6″ of snow. However, as soon as the trail got to the first switch back, and into the full glare of the sun, it turned into a muddy mess. As I climbed responsibly through the icy, muddy, mess, I kept hoping to catch a glimpse of some petrified wood. However, POIs came and went, and there was no sign of any petrified wood. By the fourth sign, I was beginning to think the trail was misnamed… the Muddy Rainbows Trail seemed apt since the most significant and unusual feature of the trail so far was the slicker than ice, multi-colored mud… red, yellow, brown, white, orange, gray, and green…
The Rainbow Colored Mud Trail continued, without any sign of petrified wood… up the ridge, and onto the mesa above. The scenery was pretty, but I beginning to wonder if all the petrified was buried under the snow. Or maybe people had plundered it all, and this was why we don’t get to have nice things. I have to admit that I was starting to feel a little disappointed. Perhaps I should have opted for a different hike in the area… maybe one with petroglyphs?
It was then, at the moment that I began to lose faith, that I almost tripped on the first group of petrified logs. There were four of them, laying side by side, partially buried in the snow. I would guess each one was at about 10 feet long, with diameters of almost two feet (it was hard to tell as they were half buried in snow and dirt). The tops of them were light brown in color and heavily worn (probably from both erosion and foot steps), but when I got down and looked at the cross-sections…
That’s when the magic started…. the minerals that made the mud in the area so colorful (iron, manganese, copper, chromium, silica, et al.) had slowly seeped into these 150 million year old logs, eventually replacing all of the organic materials with brightly colored agates and sparkly white crystals. I took my time, examining the logs, admiring the crystals, impressed by structure and texture of the wood visible in both the longitudinal and latitudinal cross section. Were these the only petrified logs left?
Nope!!! There was more! I was thoroughly enchanted by the next log, which was 20 or 30 feet long, although it was broken up into segments with the largest segment having a diameter of around 3 feet. I definitely impressed, both by the colors of the petrified tree, and by the fact that the texture of the bark of this conifer tree that died 150 million years ago was still clearly identifiable… Super cool :)
Standing on the mesa, among the modern trees, stunted, and barely taller than me, it was hard to imagine the forest full of the 200 foot giants that once stood here. I walked around the petrified tree, full of admiration, wonder, and gratitude… gratitude for the State of Utah for protecting this site, gratitude to all the previous visitors to that had left this petrified wood here for me to enjoy… gratitude for opportunity to experience this place.
It was while I was in this state of gratitude that I spotted it, glinting in the sunlight… a gorgeous piece of pocket-sized petrified wood… translucent, rose pink, white, and gold…
I picked it up, and after inspecting both the front and back of this gorgeous piece of petrified wood, I came to the conclusion that not only was it a gorgeous fossil, it was most probably a prehistoric tool, a scraper or biface (I’ve forwarded photos along to the State Park, and they’re having their archaeologists look into it). It was achingly beautiful despite the particles of ice and sand obscuring the details. It was almost physically painful to place it back into the mud and to leave it exactly where I found it. However, it was the right thing to do, so I carefully placed in back into the dirt.
On top of the mesa, I reached the intersection between the Petrified Forest Trail, and the Sleeping Rainbows Trail. I wasn’t sure what I was signing myself up for, but figured since it was only 0.75 miles I might as well give it a try… Besides, I was hoping to see more petrified wood…
What I found instead was the headless carcass of a recently deceased deer.
“Hmmm….,” I stopped, realizing how alone I was, and asked myself the question, “Is it safe for me to continue exploring this trail? Are there mountain lions nearby?”
I contemplated the age of the kill, the lack of meat on the bones, and reviewed all the animal tracks and signs I’d observed on the trail so far (lots of deer, 1 bobcat, zero mountain lions). There wasn’t enough meat left on the bones to motivate any of the big predators to come back, and the large herd of deer nearby meant that there was a ready food supply of ‘NOT ME’ in the area. All in all, I decided the risk to me was relatively low, and unless I found addition signs of big predators in the area, I was okay with continuing.
I’m glad I did. The petrified wood on the Sleeping Rainbows Trail was absolutely gorgeous (and there was no evidence of mountain lions, or anything other than beauty, on the North side of the mesa).
The rainbow-colored petrified wood lay scattered along the trail, half-buried in sparkling white snow. I’d definitely found myself a happy place.
For those of you that have heard about my adventures on the CDT, it’ll come as no surprise that I stopped to check out every single sparkling, colorful rock…
I loved them all, and left them all, taking nothing but pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.
Although I was repeatedly impressed by the color and beauty of the petrified wood, and the length of some of the logs, it wasn’t until the trail started to descend from the top of the mesa that I felt like I’d entered into a petrified forest.
The petrified wood was pretty much everywhere, in lengths from 8 inches to more than 8 feet, and diameters of between 1 foot and four feet.
I think, the point where it dawned on me how awesome and incredible this little bit of trail was, was when I realized that the rocks I was stepping down through on the steep boulder-y descent were almost exclusively rocks and boulders of petrified wood.
I tried to get some photos of me with them, to show the scale, but none of them seemed to do the petrified wood justice.
The color of the petrified wood up on the mesa was impressive, but the sheer volume of large, 3 or 4 foot diameter, 8 foot long lengths, on the steeper slopes was pretty impressive…
I could have spent forever investigating every detail of every log, but it looked like the weather might turn, and it was getting late, so I headed back up to the Petrified Forest Trail. On the ascent, tucked into the darker northeast side of the ravine, the snow had drifted up a bit, and it wasn’t 100% clear where the official trail was, but I made it back up to the top of the mesa at about where I expected to.
Petrified Forest Trail
What I found on my return to the Petrified Forest Trail was more mud. I’d almost forgotten the muddy mess that came from being in the warmth of the sun. There was still petrified wood scattered around, but it wasn’t nearly as forest-like to me as the 0.75 mile Sleeping Rainbows loop. The brilliance of the color of the wood on the mesa, however, was a thing to behold.
The final overlook (before the trail headed back down the muddy mess of the ridge) sported a beautiful log of petrified wood, with the frozen reservoir in the background, snowstorms in the distant mountains, and a herd of deer on the trail below. All in all, a pretty epic finish to the end of a short, but worthwhile hike.
The Utah Petrified Forest State Park’s web site describes the trail as, “winding through lava flows and thousands of pieces of petrified wood“; though the lava flows were not stunningly obvious, I can verify that there are thousands of pieces of petrified wood still in place within the park. To be honest, I’m both surprised (and thankful), that the State of Utah has been able to preserve this place and the treasures contained within it. I was more than happy to have made my $8 donation to help ensure its continued existence.
NOTE: I’m not sure I would have been overly impressed with the pavement accessible bits, but that might have been (at least in part) because I’d been so impressed with the Sleeping Rainbows Loop Trail that I’d just finished hiking.
- Capitol Reef National Park (Day 3)