Nearly 15,000 Acres Of Petrified Forest National Park Open For Backcountry Exploration

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The Devil’s Playground portion of Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area featuring eroded hoodoos./NPS

It took more than two decades, but a rugged, remote, and intriguing area of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is now open to backcountry travelers.

The landscape, 14,650 acres that include an outcrop known as Devil's Playground, was acquired by the park through transfer from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (4800 acres) or purchase from willing private sellers (9850 acres) since the Petrified Forest Expansion Act was passed in 2004. That Act authorized the 93,533-acre park to expand by roughly 125,000 acres. Through 2013, the park has acquired approximately 45,000 of the 125,000 acres authorized.

Arizona's elected officials, including U.S. Senator John McCain, former U.S. Senator John Kyl, former U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth and former U.S. Representative Rick Renzi, were instrumental in passing of the Expansion Act.

Park expansion was first proposed in the park's 1993 General Management Plan for the purpose of adding adjacent lands rich in both paleontological and archeological resources. The park last expanded between 1958 and 1962 when the Painted Desert portion was acquired.

The paleontological story at Petrified Forest is from 205 to 227 million years ago; the archeological story includes the entire 13,000 years human beings have been in North America.

The newest lands to be opened include an area called Billings Gap, which is a route between mesas where the fossil remains of approximately 220-million-year-old clam beds can be seen and interesting paleontological finds have already been made by park staff. This area can be accessed on foot, like the rest of the park's backcountry. There are no established trails in this wide open terrain but route information and maps are available on the park's website or at the park's visitor centers.

Another portion of expansion lands will provide access, by free permit only, to the southwest portion of the Petrified Forest Wilderness, an area called the Devil's Playground for its geological formations. That portion of the wilderness has been difficult to access prior to this opening because it is over six miles to hike one way from the existing Kachina Point access. The new Devil's Playground access will reduce the hike distance by two-thirds. Permits are available at the park's visitor centers.

The National Park Service has acquired these lands with important help from The Conservation Fund. The National Parks Conservation Association also assisted with the purchase of some of the lands.

"We couldn't have made these new lands available for public enjoyment without the help of neighbors willing to sell their land and our partners at The Conservation Fund and National Parks Conservation Association who helped us acquire it," said Superintendent Brad Traver. "We thank them all. And we also want to thank superintendents Cummins, Hellickson, Baiza, and Spencer and their staffs, as well as the staff in our NPS lands office who, over the last 21 years, helped bring Petrified Forest National Park to this important milestone."

Additional acreage is expected to be opened to the public in 2015.