Editor’s note: I, too, have spent time at Petrified Forest National Park, and it’s fun for me to follow another writer’s story, in this case our resident park expert, Christian. Mine can be found here, for comparison’s sake. To read more of Christian’s adventures, click here.
I’m fortunate to have been to Petrified Forest National Park three times in my life. Each time was a vastly different experience than the others. One of my current life goals is to see every national park unit (of which there are more than 400). To date, I’m nearing a couple hundred. In visiting every national park, I try to learn about the best our country has to offer. Our national parks preserve what is superlative about this country, both geologically and historically.
I wasn’t always as enthusiastic about national parks as I am today, however. The first time I went to Petrified Forest, I was on a road trip with my wife (my girlfriend at the time). We enjoyed our time driving through the high desert, and the sweeping vistas provided both of us with landscapes we’d never seen before.
My seasonal job in Colorado had ended recently, and we were driving to Los Angeles, staying in cheap motels and camping (legally or otherwise) along the way. At the time, I didn’t know what Petrified Forest was, nor was I even familiar with the concept of a national park. But I’ve always been a sucker for highway signs that say “Roadside Attraction Ahead,” so that’s how we found ourselves at the entry station.
Since my seasonal job had ended recently, and I didn’t have another one lined up for a couple months, money was a bit tight at the time. Captivated by the surrounding landscape and curious, we drove to the entrance station. The ranger asked us if we’d please give him the $10 entry fee, and I answered his question with a question: “Does the inside of the park look similar to what’s outside the park… that I already saw for free?” He gave me a look that was an appropriate balance of confused and disgusted then told us, “I guess not… But… I guess not….”
We took his sage advice, turned right around, headed on to Flagstaff, and spent the $10 we saved on happy hour beers in one of Arizona’s most vibrant towns.
My most recent trip was much better. This time I came with my wife and our two closest friends. Splitting the entry fee four ways made it much more affordable (also I work full time now, so $10 is less insurmountable than it once was). The first time we were there, I didn’t have the requisite background knowledge to understand how special this place is. In fairness, it truly does look pretty similar to the landscape outside the park, with a couple notable differences – the frequency of petrified wood and the hills with striated coloration.
Me and the gorgeous colors of the painted desert
As we arrived at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, I mused with my friends (none of us geologists) about how petrified trees end up in the desert. The petrified wood truly makes a spectacle of itself. The stony trees lay out in the sun, uncovered after a peaceful rest of 225 million years. None of us could even venture a worthwhile guess.
We walked inside the visitor center, leaving the desert sun outside, and settled into the air conditioned theatre to watch an interpretive video. The video explains how this area was once a humid, lush rainforest. Apparently the landscape was once rich with ferns, 180 foot trees, and rivers filled with fish, clams, and crayfish.
These plants and animals still exist here, but you have to look closely. The remains of prehistoric forests are now petrified wood; the plants and animals are now fossils. The trees here fell millions of years ago into rivers and floated downstream to form logjams. The areas with the highest concentration of petrified wood are thought to be these ancient logjams.
The ancient trees fell into a huge river system and were then quickly covered by large amounts of sediment and debris, thereby protecting the trees from oxygen, which slows the decay process significantly. As the trees laid there below the river bed, the porous wood soaked up minerals, including silica dissolved from volcanic ash. As the organic matter in the wood decayed, the minerals remained and created the fossilized trees that visitors see today.
When visitors look out across the desert, the fossilized trees are strewn around, many of them broken up in such a way that they look as though they were cut by a modern chainsaw. More realistically, the petrified wood is very hard, but also brittle. So as the earth settles and deteriorates, the shifting desert breaks up the petrified trees, which naturally break along relatively clean lines. The trees that look as though they’ve been strewn across the top of the desert were buried for 225 million years, and as the softer earth around them weathers and washes away in the rains, the trees remain.
You can see the way the wood breaks. Totally fake-looking but real.
In the more recent past, the Native Americans who lived here left behind over 1,000 archeological sites, among them 100-room pueblos, small shelters built from petrified wood, and petroglyphs etched on boulders. The Native Americans who lived here abandoned the site around 1380 AD and had no form of written language; modern visitors are left guessing at the meaning of the petroglyphs. That said, some of them are clearly solar calendars, which accurately mark the summer or winter solstice. These solar calendars are thought to have been used to help with ceremonial activities and were likely useful in agriculture as well.
As it turns out, seeing this American treasure is well worth the $10 entrance fee.
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