Petrified Forest National Park - Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park straddles the border between Apache County and Navajo County and is about 30 miles long from north to the south. It is accessible by road at both ends. The north entrance, where we started, follows the historic Route 66 highway (the only national park site that contains a segment of the historic route) within the southeastern extension of the Painted Desert. It is in the south part of the park where most of the petrified woods are concentrated.
The park was originally designated as a national monument in 1906 to preserve the petrified woods. In 1962 it became a National Park. Today, Petrified Forest also has a broad representation of the Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem and significant human history. There are scenic vistas, grasslands ecosystem and mostly clear skies. The park’s clear night skies are due to the area’s pure air quality. The park is one of the national parks that has Class I air quality, protected under Clean Air Act.
Can you imagine the Petrified Forest's environment over 200 million years ago? During the Triassic (227-205 million years ago), the climate in this region was humid and tropical. Located near the equator (about where Costa Rica is now), the landscape was dominated by a river system larger than anything on Earth today. Streams flowing through the lowland fed towering trees and plants that grew abundantly, providing food and shelter for animals and insects. It's hard to imagine today, but giant reptiles, amphibians, fish, and many invertebrates lived here. Dinosaurs once roamed here as well.
Petrified wood? These are logs made up of almost solid quartz. Each log is like a giant crystal, with a rainbow of colors, due to impurities in the quartz (iron, carbon, and manganese).
Million of years ago, lush green forests covered the landscape here, with 200-foot tall conifers. Everything was destroyed when volcanic mountains erupted toppling the trees which were then swept away into the waterways. They were buried so quickly and deeply by massive amounts of sediment and debris that oxygen was cut off.
The decay was slowed to a process that would take eons, with minerals (including silica dissolved from volcanic ash) absorbed into the porous wood through the years. These minerals crystallized within the cellular structure, replacing the organic material as it broke down. Large jewel-like crystals (clear quartz, purple amethyst, yellow citrine, and smoky quartz) formed over time.
These logs were entombed over millions of years, and through gradual erosion, these gigantic logs and pieces became exposed. Petrified trees today lie strewn across the hills and within cliff faces of the park.
Notice how the logs were broken into large segments as if cut with a chain saw? During the gradual uplifting of the Colorado Plateau, starting about 60 million years ago, these buried logs were under so much stress they broke like glass rods. That is due to the crystal nature of the quartz; it is hard and brittle and fractures easily and cleanly. Nature is incredible isn't it? Everywhere we go we see these incredible sites created by nature alone.
Most of the petrified trees have been given the scientific name Araucarioxylon arizonicum. John Muir, who was told that Arizona would be beneficial for his daughters' (Helen and Wanda) health, moved to Adamana (northeast Arizona) in 1905. Muir was one of the first to make a small collection of fossils in the area, which ended up at the University of California at Berkeley. He named the Blue Forest (one of the trails) in the park and was influential in getting President Theodore Roosevelt to set the land aside as a national monument in 1906.
Petrified Forest National Park has a remarkably diverse and long human history and culture - from prehistoric peoples to the Civilian Conservation Corps, from early explorers to Route 66 motorists. So don't be surprised if you see an old rusty car (see photo), probably abandoned when it broke down.
But that rusty car is not the amazing artifacts here. Evidence shows that humans have occupied the area for over 13,000 years. More than 600 archaeological sites have been found inside the boundaries of the park. Archaeological finds include ancient walls, artifacts, traces of roads and symbols on rocks.
- HIKING THE BLUE MESA TRAIL -
There are several hiking trails in the national park, but we didn’t have enough time and were able to hike on only one. In Blue Mesa, you will find the Chinle Formation (deposited over 200 million years ago), consisting of thick deposits of grey, blue, purple and green mud-stone and minor sandstone beds. The Blue Mesa Trail is a short, easy trail, about a one-mile loop with paved and gravel trail in some areas. There is a steep grade at the beginning of the trail, though you have to do it twice since it is a loop and you have to go back up where you started.
It is a popular trail, but we saw hardly any people when we were there. This is a must- see since it is a unique and unusual hiking experience. The beautiful landscapes and scattered bits of petrified wood is something you just have to experience yourself. You will be mesmerized and be awed by what you will see. In this area, many fossilized plants and animals have also been found, including fossils of dinosaurs and phytosaurs that date to the Triassic Period (252 to 201 million years ago).
Take note, there are restrictions and stiff fines for taking rocks from within the park, but you might still be tempted in spite of that. No matter how small, try to resist taking any so others can enjoy them as well.
Taking petrified wood from the area is not actually new. Imagine what it was like here before it was discovered by military survey parties. They passed through here in the 1850's and filled their saddlebags with pieces of petrified wood. Eventually word spread and fossil logs were hauled off by the wagon-load for making table tops, lamps, and mantels. Even gem collectors began dynamiting logs while searching for amethyst and quartz crystals in the 1890's. It was a "free for all" back then. Aren't we glad the park is preserved today for everyone to see and experience?
Another hiking trail to explore is the Giant Long Logs area, a 1.6 miles trail with one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the park. As much as we wanted to do the whole trail, we only walked part way since we didn’t have enough time to do the whole thing. If you don't have enough time to explore the trails in the park, there are plenty of petrified logs scattered around the visitor's area in the south part of the park.
OTHER FEATURES AT THE PARK
It’s not all sand and fossils in the Petrified Forest National Park. Depending on the elevation and availability of minerals, soil, rock and moisture, plants and animals thrive here. Plants have adapted to the arid climate and are able to survive the extremes of temperature and precipitation of the desert. The grasslands, shrub-lands and little juniper-cliffrose woodlands are critical components within the grassland ecosystem throughout the park. These, along with riparian and spring habitats, are valuable not only for plants but for wildlife as well.
Animal life at Petrified Forest includes amphibians, birds, insects, spiders, mammals, and reptiles. Birds, lizards and rabbits are seen most frequently, though seasons and weather play a large role in determining what animals are active at any one time. Many are nocturnal (active at night), an adaptation not only to avoid high summer daytime temperatures, but also to avoid certain predators.
STAYING & DINING IN HOLBROOK
After visiting the Petrified Forest, we stayed the night in the town of Holbrook. The town, founded in 1881, was named after the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad chief engineer, Henry R. Holbrook. It was known as "the town too tough for women and churches". A real wild west town with saloons and heavy drinking, gun-toting men. But that was then. Today, Holbrook is the seat of Navajo County and the gateway to Petrified Forest National Park.
Staying the night and eating good food in Holbrook is not a problem. Just ask the locals, they know where the best eateries are. We dined in an Italian Restaurant recommended by the hotel we stayed in. It was a long day and we needed some delicious sustenance. We were not disappointed.