Petrified Forest National Park is a classic case of not judging a book by its cover. For a place so barren and empty for miles and miles, one has to know the story to fall in love.
Why is this desert highland called a forest? Because a long, long time ago, it truly was.
About 225 million years ago, this part of the then super-continent Pangaea near the equator, was sub-tropical. This place was rich with life, full of forests roamed with dinosaurs, and there were rivers abundant with fish. What is now Arizona had swamps where logs and other plants and animals were washed unto a rich-filled ancient river system and were buried quickly and deeply with sediments that oxygen was suddenly cut off. Without oxygen, the process of decay was delayed for centuries, long enough that minerals like silica were already absorbed into the fibers of the wood, plants, and animals. After thousands of years, the organic structure was already replaced by the absorbed minerals and have all fossilized. Gradual process of erosion exposed the fossilized animals and plants, especially logs.
In geology, petrification is the process where organic material becomes a fossil through the replacement of the original material and the filling of the original pore spaces with minerals. To put it simply, the ancient forest was petrified! Hence, the name.
Petrified Forest was a national monument until in December 1962, it was established as a National Park by US Congress. And like any national parks, it is illegal to remove or damage any specimen. When we left the park, we were asked if we have petrified wood in our possession. Park rangers are legally empowered to search vehicles. A violator is subject to a fine and/or imprisonment. Any legal purchases of any petrified specimens at a gift shop is advisable to have a receipt.
Petrified Forest National Park covers about 230 square miles. While there are hiking trails available around the park, there are also overlook points that are conveniently on the side of the road accessible by car. Giant logs was our first trail since it is easily located at the back of Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center. Giant logs trail is only a half-mile loop that showcases the colorful petrified giant logs as the name suggests.
Jasper Forest road is a 2.5 mi (4 km) round trip hike around a petrified garden. The National Park Service’s website says that this area was originally called First Forest because it was the first collection of petrified wood travelers encountered when they came by wagon from the Adamana train station one hundred years ago. We did not hike. We only parked the car and walked towards the lookout view which was still memorable.
Agate Bridge is only a short drive north from Jasper Forest. This “bridge” was created as softer rocks eroded around a large petrified log. To help prevent the bridge from collapsing, the early park service built several stone for support.
The Blue Mesa is a landscape of bluish bentonite clay as well as petrified wood.
Perhaps the most photographed part of Petrified Forest National Park, Painted Desert as its name clearly suggests, is like a watercolor art that has come to life. The beautiful mix of red, white, and brown stripes on every mound, a little touch of green desert vegetation in early spring, and the sunset in the horizon highlighting the vast badlands, is fantastic! My legs were starting to feel exhausted from all our hikes for the day, but I did not want to leave this gorgeous landscape.
KACHINA POINT / PAINTED DESERT INN
The Painted Desert Inn is a historic building list on the National Register of Historic Places that offers tremendous views and murals by noted Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.
Petrified Forest stretches north and south between I-40 and Highway 180. Westbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park and connect with Hwy 180 at the south end. Travel 19 miles on Hwy 180 North to return to Interstate 40 via Holbrook. Eastbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 285 into Holbrook then travel 19 miles on Hwy 180 South to the park’s south entrance. Drive the 28 miles north through the park to return to I-40. For more information, please visit https://www.nps.gov/pefo/index.htm.
I did warn you, Petrified Forest National Park is a classic case of not judging a book by its cover. :)