The Petrified Forest – a colorful depository of ancient lumber

The Petrified Forest

A colorful depository of ancient lumber

Helping a friend with her goal to visit all of America’s national parks, we traveled to Petrified Forest National Park in the northeast corner of Arizona near Holbrook on a 30-mile swath of land spanning Interstate 40 and Historic Route 66 reaching into the Painted Desert. This park has the world’s largest collection of petrified wood and, as part of the Chinle Formation, a wealth of ancient natural history including tons of other fossils – plants and animals – from the Late Triassic period.

Wood turned to stone is the real attraction of this place. Not only does it offer a look into the ancient world, but it is beautiful. The minerals that replaced the organic material kept the original texture of bark, the rings of the tree and added their own beauty with myriad of colors and shimmering crystals. 

Petrified Forest National Park Petroglyphs

The park also has some remnants of the ancient peoples of the Southwest. There are ruins of a 100-room pueblo community similar to other sites I’ve visited, although not the most intact or elaborate (Pueblo Grande, Tuzigoot, Pecos). There is also a smaller ruin, Agate House, that was rebuilt in the 30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps with fragments of petrified wood. The most impressive remnant of this ancient culture are the petroglyphs. There are three sites easily accessible to the public at the park with a fabulous collection of these ancient stone carvings. I’ve been to several ancient pueblos and ruins and only a handful have petroglyphs, so this may have been a place of significance for these ancient people.

Petrified Forest National Forest Rio Puerco Pueblo RuinsUnless you’re planning to spend time in the wilderness area at the north end of the park, a full day is enough time to explore Petrified Forest NP. Pretty much all of the park’s trails are 1-3 miles long and mostly flat. You can access the park from the north or south end and there are visitors’ centers at both entrances. The north entrance has food service as well, but until they finish the bridge over I-40, your only access to this gate is heading west on the freeway.

You’ll find most of the petrified wood at the south end of the park closer to Holbrook and the Painted Desert at the north end. The north also has remnants of the Mother Road with the Painted Desert Inn complete with beautiful murals and fantastic glass ceiling. Unfortunately, it is only open to walk through and not for business such as food or lodging. I asked the ranger on duty why. She said it is too much work just to keep it standing with foundation and other structural issues.

Two trails I would definitely recommend, the Long Logs Trail and the Blue Mesa Trail. Both surround you with what makes this place special. While hiking down the Blue Mesa Trail you feel like you’re on another planet with the badlands of blue and white banded hills punctuated with pebbles and the occasional piece of petrified wood. The Long Logs Trail takes you right over a grand depository of the park’s namesake, so that the trail meanders in and around hundreds if not thousands of wood turned quartz.

How does wood turn into beautiful stone you may ask? As we wandered this arid park, we wondered about that very question. Of course in the visitors’ center there is an explanation, but we enjoyed coming up with our own theories. 

As we joked about many possible explanations, the usual theories came up of volcanoes and ancient aliens. One hypothesis included the ancient, non-dinosaur reptiles (the giant crocodile-like creatures they’ve found fossils of in the area) that scared the trees so much they were petrified. Another included an ancient civilization that built great wood complexes. When the civilization was destroyed their buildings were toppled and the wood was covered by silt or volcanic ash thus preserving them to be turned into stone. When you hike the Long Logs Trail you’ll see how some of the trees look as if they were laid out in particular positions in man-made structures. Going a step further with our ancient aliens theory is that the extraterrestrials were taking samples of wood back to their world and had to preserve it for the journey, thus the petrification. The park is where they tested the process until they got it right and took the most beautiful specimens back with them.

The official explanation is that in the Late Triassic period, during the time of Pangaea, that part of Arizona was a vast floodplain and basically the dumping ground for any rivers or runoff in the area. As trees fell into the river by means of erosion, they were washed down stream until they reached this place and were quickly covered with silt and other sediment thus cutting off the oxygen and bacteria needed for decomposition. As the Earth kept spinning minerals slowly took the place of the organic material and quartz formed in the shape of its host. Now we find beautiful columns of quartz in the form of ancient trees – bark, rings, knots and all.

No matter how we imagine the creation of the petrified wood, it is now protected for generations. The story of why this land was protected is interesting in and of itself. In the late 1800s, the railroad was built through the region just a stone’s throw from the petrified forests. As people discovered it, they pilfered the wood as souvenirs. Others got really upset about this and complained. So, in 1906, at the recommendation from conservationist John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt declared the area as Petrified Forest National Monument. In 1962, it became a National Park. Back then it was much smaller. In 2004, George W. Bush expanded the park to more than twice its previous size.

This National Park is just three hours from Phoenix and about the same distance from the Grand Canyon. It is right off Interstate 40 and could make a great pit stop on a cross-country journey. 

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