The Painted Desert & the Petrified Forest National Park - Arizona
Updated: Feb 17
Sounds like a magical place doesn't it? Driving from Colorado to California for the holidays, we always make it a road trip and make sure to visit interesting sights and parks we pass along the way. Some of the most famous geological parks are found on the Colorado Plateau. In National Parks alone, there are plenty of sites to explore. We always drive through Utah and Arizona and these two states have some of the best.
In Arizona, the sixth largest state in the United States (in terms of area), there are three National Parks: Grand Canyon National Park, Saguaro National Park and Petrified Forest National Park. Each has its own unique characteristics and one of a kind features to offer. We visited them all during winter times, one each year. These parks are best to visit when the weather is cool (it can be really hot in summer). Besides, there are no crowds at this time of year. You just have to bundle up, it can get cold in winter even in the desert.
So, I'll start with Petrified Forest National Park here (I will discuss the other two later on). Before that, we stayed overnight in Albuquerque, New Mexico so that the next morning we didn't have a long drive to the park. It gave us just enough time to visit the park and do a little hiking as well. First I'll talk about the "Badlands" section of the park.
Badlands are not confined to South Dakota alone; they can be found in the Southwest as well. In Arizona, the colorful Badland hills are scattered across the Painted Desert. The Chinle Formation, deposited here over 200 million years ago (during the Late Triassic Period), is mainly of fluvial origin which are river-related deposits.
The Painted Desert encompasses over 93,500 acres and stretches over 160 miles. Located in Northeast Arizona, near the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, it includes the Petrified Forest. The park is 95 miles east of Flagstaff and 55 miles from the New Mexico border, along Interstate 40/Route 66. Entrance to the Park is about 25 miles east of Holbrook, Arizona, a town steeped with a history of outlaws, railroaders and cattlemen, and Hispanic and Native American culture.
How was the Painted Desert named? As the story goes, in 1540, a Spanish explorer, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, who was trying to find routes between their colonies along the Rio Grande and the Pacific Coast, named the region El Desierto Pintado, meaning “The Painted Desert”. It was a perfect name. Standing looking at the incredible landscapes here is like looking at a canvas.
The park has two geological formations - the Late Triassic Chinle Formation and the Mio-Pliocene Bidahochi Formation. Ancient environments are represented by these layers. The fossils that are found here help scientists reconstruct those ancient environments.
The landscape, created by erosion, has a multitude of colors, ranging from lavenders to shades of gray with vibrant colors of red, orange and pink. It's like a magnificent rainbow of colors unique only in the area. It took millions of years for nature to create this natural landscape, sculpting and molding the land throughout the park.
The area's unusual colorful landscape is composed of bentonite clay (a product of altered volcanic ash), and sandstone. Wind, which blows most of the time here, played a big role in shaping the terrain, since the meager amount of rainfall (annually only about 10 inches) has little effect on altering the shape of the land because it falls in small amounts at a time and doesn't run off all that much.
PAINTED DESERT INN
Before heading to the Petrified Forest, we stopped at the Painted Desert Inn, located at Kachina Point, two miles from the north entrance. This building became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Back in the days, from the early 1920's, this inn served as a rest and stop point for people traveling along Route 66. Today, it serves as a museum with displays of the Inn's history, the historic Route 66 and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). Also inside are restored murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.
The Inn today is of Pueblo Revival Style (stuccoed masonry, thick walls, earth tones, flat roofs, and projecting roof beams or vigas), but the original building was made of petrified wood and other native stone. It was built by Herbert David Lore, a homesteader. He called it "Stone Tree House" and operated it as a tourist attraction. It had a lunch room where visitor's could eat, a taproom to quench the thirst, an area to buy American Indian arts and crafts, and six small double rooms to stay the night.
Unfortunately, the original Inn did not last due to its location. The structure sits on bentonite clay which causes swells and shrinkage due to changes in moisture. The foundation shifted, and cracks and water damage appeared in the walls. Lore sold his property to the Petrified Forest National Monument in 1936, in order to preserve it. The park service demolished it eventually.
The National Park service architect Lyle Bennett (considered a master of the Pueblo Revival Style) redesigned the Inn, copying the Puebloan and Spanish Colonial cultures, a popular style in the 1930's.
The new inn was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (who also built roads, trails and bridges in many national parks during the depression). They also hand-painted the skylight panels with images of prehistoric pottery, and etched and painted the concrete floors with Navajo blanket designs. The inn re-opened in 1940 but was closed again in October 1942 because of World War II.
The Inn was reopened five years later under new ownership. The Fred Harvey Company, which is tied to the Southwest railroad and tourism, made renovations and repairs with the help of the company's architect and interior designer, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. New plate glass windows were installed to take advantage of the view, and renowned Hopi artist, Fred Kabotie was hired. Colter was also responsible for hiring young women who became known as the "Harvey Girls of the Painted Desert Inn" to serve customers.
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.
What is 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.
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 to see them so we 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).
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.
Among the park’s archaeological features are Petroglyphs (e.g., Newspaper Rock) and the ruins of ancient Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi), notably the Puerco Indian Ruin just south of the Painted Desert.
The park has limited dining and retail facilities but no lodging or developed campgrounds, though there are back-country camping sites designated in the wilderness areas. Early or late in the day (depending on park hours) are said to be the most spectacular times to visit the Painted Desert.
At the edge of Painted Desert is the Wupatki National Monument, a collection of ruins of dwellings built by the Anasazi and Sinagua Indians during the 12th and 13th centuries.
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.
NEXT: TO SEDONA
The next day, after a hearty breakfast provided by the hotel we stayed in, we headed to Sedona. It is a beautiful town surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest land with easy access to hiking trails, biking and other outdoor activities. It is one of our favorite towns to explore.