Petrified Forest National Park
Forest of Stone
By Joe Zentner
Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape. The youth of the earth is in the soil and in the trees and verdure that spring from it; its age is in the rocks. (John Burroughs naturalist and essayist)
Today, perched at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, in northeastern Arizona, is a place where rainbow-colored petrified logs sparkle and painted badlands glow in the desert sun. Less than 10 inches of rain falls in this high desert during the course of an average year, most of that in a few thunderstorms that briefly flood the dry streambeds and bring forth short-lived profusions of flowers during the summer. Most of the year, sagebrush and hardy grasses dominate the plant community. Jackrabbits, prairie dogs, snakes and a few desert pronghorn antelope are the most conspicuous wildlife. But buried in the colorful sediments lie the remains of a drastically different ecosystema wet conifer forest that grew 225 million years ago. This is Petrified Forest National Park an expanse of more than 90,000 acres that encompass both a stone woodlands and the lavishly colored Painted Desert. Divided in half by the Puerco River, it is one of the world’s great storehouses of knowledge about life late in the Triassic Periodthe dawn of the age of the dinosaurs.
Geologists believe that the trees that would turn to stone grew in rain forests as much as 100 miles away and were floated down to this area, a huge floodplain, by sediment-laden streams that quickly covered the logs with volcanic silica ash. The blanket of stream deposition sealed the trees from the atmosphere so rapidly that they did not have a chance to decay. Over time, various minerals would replace the organic matter.
For eons, tree trunks and sedimentary material continued to flow down the stream and pile up, finally reaching a depth of about 400 feet. As millions of years passed, vast geological changes occurred. During the next geological age (the Cretaceous), a long arm of the sea flooded the country, laying down some 3,000 feet of soil, minerals and marine deposits over the massive array of trees, which would become what today we call the “Chinle Formation.”
Then, 60 million years ago, the tectonic uplift that resulted in the formation of the Rocky Mountains started, and it continued until the region that is now northeastern Arizona was well above the level of the sea. Erosion stripped away the 3,000 feet of marine deposits. It then started on the 400 feet of the Chinle formation itself, uncovering the forest of stone trees. Today about 100 feet of the Chinle formation has been eroded away, and nearly every year, rains wash away a few more tons of the ancient overburden.
In the Triassic period, when the trees that were to become the Petrified Forest were living organisms, man wasn't even in the blueprint stage. The first dinosaurs, small at first, but which later developed into monstrous 90-foot-long creatures, were just beginning their 100,000,000-year reign as the dominant animals of the earth.
While water transported the trees to the destination that would become the Petrified Forest part of the park, it deposited the mineral-rich sedimentary layers just to the north, in the area that would become the Painted Desert. In the beds that accumulated slowly, iron and aluminum oxides had time to form and concentrate in the soil, accounting for the spectrum of reddish colors in the layers in the northern end of the park. In beds that accumulated rapidly, during floods, the oxides did not have time to form and concentrate, which accounts for the bluish to lavender colors in the layers in the south end of the Painted Desert.
The Petrified Forest Discovered and Preserved
In 1851, U. S. Army Lt. Sitgreaves, who was exploring the Southwest, made the earliest written report about Arizona’s Petrified Forest. However, it was not until the Santa Fe Railroad completed its rail line in the 1880s that significant numbers of visitors began to arrive on the scene. When news of a “petrified forest” reached the East Coast, fantastic stories developed. “City slickers,” lured to Arizona Territory by the tall tales, expected to see standing forests of great stone trees with stone branches and leaves on which were sitting “petrified birds singing petrified songs.” They probably left petrified by what they saw in fact.
As the nation progressed westward, the Petrified Forest became more widely known. Some people came to admire, to study, and to carry away souvenirs, large and small. Others came to estimate the commercial potential of the petrified wood. A project got under way to build a stamp mill, which would convert the very hard logs into abrasives for sandpaper.
The future of the strange forest began to look dim. Finally, increased demands to protect the Petrified Forest prompted President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1906, to issue a proclamation establishing the Petrified Forest National Monument “for the protection and preservation of one of the world's most colorful and extensive concentrations of silicified wood.”
In the early 1930s, President Herbert Hoover signed orders adding important deposits of petrified wood to the monument, expanding it to include the picturesque and chromatic Painted Desert. A notable addition was Blue Mesa, an area of purplish bentonite hills that had been explored and named by famed naturalist John Muir. Finally, in 1962, the expanded monument became Petrified Forest National Park.
Exploring the Petrified Forest
One of the principal opportunities for visitors is a self-guided drive along the park’s 28-mile two-way road, which connects the south and north entrances. The drive includes a number of pullouts that overlook some of the park’s most scenic features. Other attractions include self-guided walks, nature talks and activities, displays and films in the Rainbow Forest Museum and Painted Desert Visitor Center.
Among the major attractions in the Petrified Forest section of the park are the museum and the Giant Logs and Long Logs walking trails, the Crystal Forest and Jasper Forest pullouts, the Blue Mesa drive and pullouts, and Newspaper Rock.
The Giant Logs Trail, for one example, passes through some of the park’s largest petrified trees, ancient conifers that look like sawed-up redwoods dumped on the moon.
The Blue Mesa drive and its pullouts are among the most intriguing parts of the park. In particular, I relish wandering the abstract alleys and amphitheaters, exploring the ridges and ravines, the weathered plazas and promontories, the conglomerate crags and crests. Every foot of a one-mile trail gives visitors a change of perspectivesimple or complex, like a maze.
At Newspaper Rock, which can be seen from an overlook, there are hundreds of ancient petroglyphs on a large boulder below a cliff. It was the Anasazi Puebloan people who pecked, chiseled and scratched the images into the brown patina, or “desert varnish,” that formed on the exposed rock surface. The meanings of most of the etched symbols are long since forgotten, but there is one figure, below and northeast of the overlook, of Kokopeli, the “hunchbacked flute player,” perhaps the most famous of the prehistoric rock art icons across the Southwest.
The gateway to the Painted Desert is Lacey Point, an elevated area on the Painted Desert Rim, which is capped by erosion-resistant volcanic rock. A fairly easy climb down the steep bentonite side of the rim takes you into the Painted Desert. Deeply gullied red hills and terraced sandstone ledges give an otherworldly feeling to the surroundings. The Black Forest Bed, near the bottom of the cliff, has an abundance of dark fossilized wood buried in a layer of pinkish sandstone. You can learn more about this part of the park at the Painted Desert Visitor Center.
Petrified Forest National Park becomes most captivating when the warm light of early morning or late afternoon casts shadows across the landscape, defining its relief and intensifying its rich colors. Since the park gates are opened shortly after sunrise and are not closed until around sundown throughout the year, anyone wishing to do so can see the area graced by the sun’s most decorative rays at both ends of the day.
When you leave Petrified Forest National Park, you'll take with you images of the remains of a lost world exposed by the forces of time and still lying in their original place. But please, don’t take any actual fossils, rocks, or other park objects with you. It is prohibited by federal law. Also, do not climb on petrified logs; they can have dangerously sharp edges.
The Floor of the Sky
There are times when you trudge over a harsh landscape that you wish you could escape. But not here. In this vast red vision of infinity, it feels good to be bound to the earth. Novelist Willa Cather visited the Southwest and sensed it too: “Elsewhere,” she wrote, “the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.”
Camping & Lodging
There are no campgrounds or lodging facilities in the park but they are available in nearby communities.
Click on the city names below for rates, availability and online reservations.
If You Go
You can enter the park either from Interstate 40, which divides the Petrified Forest section from the Painted Desert section, or from U. S. Highway 160, which passes the Petrified Forest section at the southern end. The museum, visitors’ center and several trails are handicapped-accessible.
Summer days may be warm, and the usual clear weather may be broken by sudden thundershowers. In winter, cold and snowy days are not uncommon. High winds may be expected in any season.
More on the Petrified Forest
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