In the desert of northern Arizona lies a forest, a forest so old it was ancient even when dinosaurs roamed the planet. Yes, this forest is more than 200 million years old, and it can still be seen. How, you ask?
Petrified Forest National Park contains one of the largest collections of petrified wood in the world. 200 million years ago, this area was a lush subtropical forest. As trees fell down, many fell into shallow waters full of minerals. The absorbent wood pulled in the water, and rather than decompose, the silicate minerals contained in the water replaced the organic material in the wood and turned it to solid rock. Nobody is certain exactly how long this process took, but fossil records in the area show the wood was already petrified during T-Rex’s dominance some 20 million years later.
It might look like an ordinary log, but this is solid rock dating back more than 200 million years.
Buried beneath the ground, the petrified wood settled, developing fractures in the quartz that segmented many trees into pieces that look hand cut, and was exposed by changing climate and wind erosion for us to enjoy today.
These segments are due to the settling of the quartz. As fractures develop, they take the shortest path to relieve that stress, leading to these horizontal “cuts.”
Visitors to Petrified Forest National Park will enjoy two distinct sections of the Park. In the south lie the petrified wood fields. Visit the Crystal Forest for an easy 3/4 mile paved loop with hundreds of petrified logs all around. You’ll notice the different colors of petrified wood. This is due to impurities in the wood itself, not due to different species of wood or different periods of time. Giant Logs, near the southern Visitor Center, has some of the largest petrified logs, and is a few mere steps from the parking lot.
Just one “pile” of petrified wood in Crystal Forest. Other logs are right off the path.
Note: I hate that I have to mention this here, but please, don’t take petrified wood chips home with you. First off, it’s selfish. Secondly, if caught you’ll be prosecuted federally. If you want petrified wood to take home, gift shops in the area sell pieces.
The northern portion of the Park, just off Interstate 40, is the Painted Desert. Swirling vistas of reds, oranges, whites, and greens give the region its name, and it is one of the most popular places to photograph in Arizona, for good reason.
The Painted Desert leaves little doubt as to how it got its name.
The old Painted Desert Inn, once a Harvey House like so many other iconic hotels in the American West, is now a small museum to the history of the area. Members of the local Navajo community are there showcasing crafts, and discussing the significance of the Painted Desert to their mythology. In Navajo lore, the color is said to come from the blood of giants who battled here, the petrified wood to the south being their bones.
While it is sadly no longer a hotel, the Painted Desert Inn is worth a stop.
The entire end to end drive through Petrified Forest National Park will take about an hour, plus stops, and is worth making. Besides the two main focal points, you’ll see a section of historic Route 66, and an awesome rock formation called the Teepees, for obvious reasons. All in all, 2-3 hours in the Park is enough to get a good feel, making it a perfect stop between the Grand Canyon or Sedona and New Mexico!
The Teepees, about half way down the Park’s drive.
Like so many of the National Parks, Petrified Forest holds a special place for me as being completely unique. I recommend it highly!
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