We were heading toward Flagstaff, Arizona, and that day’s goal; Sedona, Arizona’s red rocks area. We had left Albuquerque, New Mexico earlier that morning and headed west on I-40, also known as Route 66 — “The Mother Road” — in those parts. We were looking forward to seeing Sedona, where we would camp for the next several days.
But, about 50 miles after we crossed the New Mexico border into Arizona, I noticed a road sign that told me I had made a mistake. When I planned our trip, I tried to include as many of the national and state parks as I could without having to do too much backtracking in order to return to a main route; like I-40. What I saw that morning was a sign announcing that we were approaching another of my “must-sees,” but one that I had overlooked in my day’s planning — The Petrified Forest National Park.
The eastern park entrance is at Exit 311 off I-40. Take Exit-311 North and follow the road to the Welcome Center and the ranger station. From there, you can follow the road through the park until it intersects with SR-180. Turn right and it will lead you out of the park and back to I-40. If you enter the park from the West, take Exit-285 off of I-40 and follow SR-180 South to the entrance to the park on your left.
Ever since my childhood and Walt Disney’s “Painted Desert” shows, I had been intrigued by the idea of a petrified forest. What I saw that day did not disappoint me.
If you were able to visit Earth 200 million years ago, you would have found much of the planet’s landmass combined into one massive continent that we call Pangaea. During that time, known as the Late Triassic Epoch, the area that would become northeastern Arizona and southwestern Utah was located near the equator. That tropical location resulted in a climate and environment very different from now.
During the Late Triassic Epoch, much of what would become Utah was then submerged beneath a massive body of water known as Lake Bonneville. Most of southern Utah and northern Arizona was a vast wetland of tropical rivers, streams and lakes. 200 million years ago, there were forests and groves of trees growing along or near those waterways.
The trees that died during that time fell or were washed into the waterways and were carried along until they formed a log jam, where they were buried in the silt and began the petrification process.
Eventually the super-continent broke apart into the modern continents that we know today. As they moved apart, the continental landmass climates changed. What became the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest areas moved north and became drier. Fossilized flora and fauna evidence of this ancient land lies in the sediments called the Chinle Formation that is now widely exposed in the Petrified Forest National Park.
The park covers about 146 square miles, encompassing semi-desert shrub steppe as well as highly eroded and colorful badlands. The site, the northern part of which extends into the Painted Desert, was declared a National Monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962. About 600,000 people visit the park each year and take part in activities including sightseeing, photography, hiking, and backpacking.
The Petrified Forest is beautiful, but may disappoint some travelers who have never seen it before. If, in your mind’s eye, you’re picturing a forest or even one or more groves of stone trees; standing frozen in time, you’ll be disappointed. Here is a link to the Park’s FAQ pages to help prepare yourself.
The truth is, the Petrified Forest might be hard to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for, or you don’t plan on getting out of your vehicle to look around. The massive trees — conifers, ginkgoes, tree ferns and others — that make up the Petrified Forest, some of which were 10 feet in diameter and over 200 feet tall, lie shattered on the ground. In less enlightened times, people used pickaxes and even dynamite to break the trees into more portable souvenirs and museum pieces. As water and sand-blown wind wore away the softer sedimentary rock beneath the now fossilized tree trunks, the heavy trees fractured and broke apart. The trees are tremendously heavy and hard quartz crystals that are brittle and can shatter like glass.
There’s a sign that explains the history of one of the more popular sites, where a huge log stretches across a washed-out area forming a natural bridge. When the logs begin to deteriorate from the natural stresses of wetting and drying, freezing and high temperatures, cracks form that weaken it’s structure. Because of that, many trees have cracked and broken into many colorful pieces. Years ago, the park rangers tried to save that natural, petrified bridge created by one huge log by pouring concrete supports below the cracked areas in an effort to support it. Under today’s guidelines, natural wonders like the petrified trees and bridges and natural arches are left to nature. If a site is endangered by natural forces; then so be it. The government takes a much more laissez-faire attitude toward park management today.
In order to enjoy the park to the most, you’ll need to get out of your vehicle and take what is in most cases, a very short hike to the petrified trees and the descriptive plaques that dot the park. I think that the trick to enjoying the park to the fullest is to imagine what the area must have looked like over 200 million years ago when it was an equatorial marshland and then how the environment changed over all those years, going from warm and moist to hot and dry. Try to see the ancient logs as the trunks of massive trees that fell down and were buried deeper and deeper until the pressure and mineral-laden water began to turn the trees into stone. Then imagine yourself standing a hundred feet or more above the buried petrified trees as wind and water pealed layer after layer of deposits away until the petrified logs were exposed.
I believe that visiting areas like the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone can change a person forever; leaving you with an appreciation of how much our world has changed and how long it took to do so.
BTW, there are signs around the park warning that taking rock souvenirs is a federal crime. Even so, just before you leave the park, heading toward SR-180, and within sight of the park ranger’s booth, you’ll notice pieces of petrified wood — some quite nice — that were left at the side of the road. Just some more evidence that it takes all kinds of people and some of them are quite larcenous. Not surprisingly, just outside of the park are roadside shops offering all sizes and colors of petrified tree pieces for sale. Those who want to take home a souvenir should get one there.
Till Next Time,