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An area of geological wonders
The Devil's Playground is a relatively remote area of the Petrified Forest National Park home to a plethora of interesting geological features. It is unique in that the colorful clay mounds in this area are often capped with colorful-stone that monsoon floods convert to short, and probably short-lived, hoodoos. These hoodoos are as numerous as they are varied, with some examples are up to 100' tall while others are as small as toadstools and all sizes in between. This area used to be very difficult to access, requiring a ~7-mile hike one-way just to reach the area. In 2015, the park was expanded, and an easement across private property granted for a much shorter 2.5 mile (one-way) trek into the Playground.
Some off-road driving is required to reach the trailhead. The exact details are subject to change and will be provided at the Petrified Forest National Park visitor's center when receiving your permit for the hike. Directions were current at the time of writing, please edit as needed. A high clearance vehicle is required, and both the jeep trail to the parking area and the trail itself cross washes (one of them quite large), so this hike is not accessible during monsoons or flash floods.
At the time of writing (October 2020), there are 3 permits issued per week to access Devil's Playground. They can only be received in person at the visitor's center on a first-come-first-served basis. There is no extra charge for the permit beyond the regular National Park entrance fee. We arrived on Saturday, and two of the 3 permits for the week had been claimed that morning. We were able to secure the last permit on Sunday morning following. Even with the new approach hike's reduced distance, the total 7+ mile distance and trailhead vehicle access challenges keep this permit from getting too popular.
Reading the national park literature and talking to the rangers about the subject one would think that navigating this trail is difficult. In practice, we didn't find it to be that bad. After crossing Lithodendron Wash, the first National Park Service Marker was immediately apparent. The markers, which are brown fiberglass stakes ~3" wide and 6' tall, are regularly spaced so that you can usually see the next two markers going forward from any given spot on the trail. Anyone who has been to White Sands National park will be familiar with this trail marking approach as the same system is used there. The only challenge is that the markers here are brown and can, at times, be difficult to spot against the natural colors of the landscape. The markers at White Sands were pink and easier to spot.
Besides the navigation markers, the trail itself is lightly trafficked and can be faint in areas. When in doubt, look for stock droppings. I am guessing that the rangers occasionally take mules into the area for maintenance because evidence of the animal passage was nearly as regular as the trail markers.
The markers will lead you to a barbed wire fence and gate through it, after which there are no other markers. This gate (I think) indicates the end of the private property access hike and the beginning of the national park boundary (maybe the pre-2015 boundary) and the Devil's Playground's general area.
After passing through the gate, there isn't an official trail or route. The immediate hill in front of you is not that interesting but just past it and/or to the left are access points (with some mild scrambling) to the Devil's Playground. There are various features and formations to observe. You will find many interesting places by wandering in and out of the canyons. I recommend against trying to follow any particular path after the gate and explore to your heart's content.
Initially, the trail shadows Lithodendron Wash for ~ 1 mile before starting to head uphill. At 1.25 miles, you will come across a "Mini Devil's Playground," a small patch of painted desert with a sampling of petrified wood and the features that are to come. The remainder of the approach trail is typical high desert until you reach the gate, where you can start to catch glimpses of the Devil's Playground in the distance.
The terrain is not very difficult on the approach, but there are some areas where you will be walking through grass and may get some foxtails in your socks. In the "playground" type areas, the clay is somewhat soft, and there may be dry channels that you will need to step across or jump. Some of the playground slopes have pieces of petrified wood or larger stones, making for unstable footing.
We did this hike at the beginning of October. It was nice and cool in the morning, but you knew you were in the desert by the late afternoon. This was probably the optimum season for the hike; we just had an unusually hot day. Spring would likely be a good choice. Monsoon season should probably be treated with caution to eliminate the possibility of being trapped by a flash flood.
There are no water sources in this area, so you will need to bring adequate water with you. This area would be a good place to overnight backpack (I think this is an option in the Permit system), but the lack of water sources nearby makes this more challenging.
General Comments and Musings
We have explored many trails (both well marked and off-trail options) at the Petrified Forest National Park on two separate trips. We haven't done them all (or possibly even most of them), but so far, this one was our favorite. There is a wide variety of features and beautiful colors everywhere. With surprises around every corner, this hike makes you feel like a kid in a playground. This is one of those places where even a mediocre photographer can capture stunning shots without even trying.
The Devil's Playground's size and the non-negligible distance of the approach hike mean an early start is required. We slept in a bit and spent longer than intended getting started, so we had to limit our explorations to get back home at a reasonable hour. This area has lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and you could easily spend a whole day out there and probably not see everything worth seeing.
This was a fantastic hike. The clay's soft nature that makes up the base material means that this area presumably changes after each monsoon season. I look forward to returning in the future to see what has changed and to explore more of the area.
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.