Blue Mesa Trail, Blue Mesa Trailhead, Petrified Forest National Park - Painted Desert, Arizona
Blue Mesa Trail - 1.1 miles
Blue Mesa Trailhead
|Round-Trip Length:||1.1 miles|
|Start-End Elevation:||5,617' - 5,520' (5,617' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||-97' net elevation loss (+210' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
The Blue Mesa Trail winds through Petrified Forest National Park's most visually stunning badland formations. Blue, grey, white, lavender and green striated mounds, cones, buttes and fins rise sharply above an otherwise flat and barren landscape.
These color bands are the combined result of mineral presence and water levels at the time of sedimentary deposition. High water levels deprived carbon and iron minerals of oxygen, producing grey, green and blue hues.
Reddish tones formed when the water table fluctuated, allowing iron-based minerals such as hematite to oxidize, or rust. White bands are nearly pure bentonite clay, which was once volcanic ash.
Water percolating through the mudstone causes subtle changes as well, helping to intensify and broaden the badlands' color pallet.
The Blue Mesa Trail is littered with petrified wood, remnants of a time when - about 225 million years ago - much of Northern Arizona was a heavily wooded, tropical floodplain.
Large coniferous trees - felled by age, wind, disease or insects - were swept downstream, eventually settling in and around riverbeds that once rushed through the Park. Period flooding and erosion interspersed with volcanic activity from the south and west carried sediments and ash downstream, settling over fallen trees in the area.
In some cases trees were buried quickly and deeply enough to deprive them of oxygen, thus significantly slowing the natural decomposition process. Over time, ground water dissolved silica from volcanic ash into the porous body of fallen, buried trees.
This solution formed quartz crystals that filled hollows and cracks in the logs, eventually petrifying them by encasing and replacing the trees' organic material with minerals.
The wood's brilliant colors come from impurities in the quartz, such as iron, carbon, and manganese.
Because this vicinity also houses sensitive finds such as fossilized plants and fish, off-trail exploration is strongly discouraged. Help preserve these rare treasures by viewing them from designated viewing areas.
A rough-pour path winds steeply down from the mesa-top to the canyon floor. The trail levels on the canyon floor to the unmarked - though easily identifiable - loop split (.25 miles : 5,520').
Now a dirt path, the .6 mile interpretive loop segment is fairly level and easy to follow; allow lighting and crowds to determine the best course.
- Conglomerates are a collection of cobbles and pebbles cemented together. The sandstone caprock of Blue Mesa contains gravels that were deposited here in a stream 225 million years ago. The varied and different sized-pebbles in these conglomerates indicate that the stream was moving too fast to sort the rocks effectively.
- Bentonite Clay within the badlands swell when wet, then shrink and crack when dry, resulting in an 'elephant' skin surface. Constant changes on the surface discourage plant growth and encourage erosion.
- Loose rocks and infirm soils of the badlands make off-trail exploration ill-advised, if not treacherous.
- This is a popular trail. Arrive early to secure parking and avoid crowds.
Rules and Regulations
- Collection of plants, rocks, petrified wood, fossils, archeological objects or other materials is illegal anywhere in the park. Rules are strictly enforced and violators are subject to significant penalties.
- Pets are permitted on maintained trails, but must be kept on a leash at all times. Pets are not allowed within Wilderness Areas, nor on the Wilderness Access Trail near The Painted Desert Inn. Pets are not allowed in buildings unless they are service animals.
Directions to Trailhead
The Blue Mesa Trailhead access road is located just south of mile-marker 15 on Park Road. The Blue Mesa access road is a 3.5 mile loop. Turn east on the access road and travel approximately 2 miles to the Blue Mesa sun shelter and trailhead.
Petrified Forest National Park
1 Park Road
P.O. Box 2217
Petrified Forest, AZ 86028
928 524.3567 (fax)