Petrified Forest National Park is a worthy stop for travelers headed through northeastern Arizona.
By Maggie Kielpinski
Deviating from our finely honed travel plans “” to great protest, I might add “” we left Interstate 40 at exit 311 in eastern Arizona just to learn whether Petrified Forest National Park was worth seeing. Did this flat, featureless, high desert plateau really have anything to offer other than vast swaths of tumbleweed, boulders, and gray dust as far as the eye could see?
It is hard to fathom that this barren desert of rocks, dirt, and stunning sunsets was once a lush landscape of rivers and streams that supported ferns, conifers, reptiles, and amphibians. Approximately 225 million years ago, massive trees were buried in the sediment of ancient riverbeds after periodic flooding, creating an airtight seal. The lack of oxygen slowed their decay. Silica from massive volcanic eruptions seeped into the logs, crystallizing as quartz. Iron and other minerals created a vivid, many-hued palette ranging from ruby and gold to a brilliant turquoise. The steady uplifting of the Colorado Plateau 60 million years ago exposed these petrified logs, and the earth movement caused great saw-like fractures. The end result: a large collection of colorful tree trunks frozen in time, lying in a terrain full of waves and creases.
The Petrified Forest, when viewed on a map, looks like three irregular Lego pieces randomly shoved together. A 28-mile-long road runs its length, from I-40 in the north to U.S. 180 in the south. With an area of only 147 square miles, it’s one of the smallest national parks in the country, a charming boutique version and a welcome diversion in an otherwise monotonous stretch of highway.
The north entrance off Interstate 40 (at the exit) is home to a visitors center named after the Painted Desert. This area, a 53,000-acre sea of rosy solitude, was added to the park in 1932, the result of land swaps with surrounding ranches. The Painted Desert Visitors Center has an orientation movie titled Timeless Impressions that is offered on the half-hour, as well as hands-on museum exhibits, a restaurant, a bookstore, a gift shop, and a fuel station.
From here, it’s a short ride to the Painted Desert Inn, now a National Historic Landmark, which was built in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The inn includes classic architectural features of the Pueblo Revival style, such as viga and latilla ceilings (round wooden beams with smaller sticks, usually willows, laid between them). Its 2-foot-thick walls feature an adobe finish. The interior is detailed with a lattice of decorative skylights and hand-painted concrete floors, which, although faded, still show remnants of their original geometric designs.
Architect Mary Jane Coulter commissioned famed Hopi artist Fred Kaboutie to paint stylized murals of Hopi life in the dining room. The two had previously collaborated on work at the Hopi House at Grand Canyon. The Fred Harvey Company ran the Painted Desert Inn until 1963, when it was turned over to the National Park Service. In 2006 the inn was reopened after several months of rehabilitation work and is now solely a museum and interpretive space. The inn’s lobby displays early photographs depicting an interesting who’ s-who of visitors, including Albert Einstein and his wife, Elsa, standing beside their touring Packard “Harvey car” during a visit in 1931. Throughout the year, the inn offers local Indian tribe members the opportunity to demonstrate beautiful crafting of jewelry, pottery, beadwork, and weaving.
The Painted Desert Inn would be worth the stop by itself, but, to the tune of the rhythmic and ethereal chanting on Navajo Radio (just tune your motorhome radio dial to the proper channel), we began driving south down the Petrified Forest park road to more points of interest.
Our next stop south was to view the remains of the 100-room Puerco Pueblo, located along the fickle Puerco River. It was thought to be home to 200 Pueblo Indians until around A.D. 1400. Nearby is Newspaper Rock, where ancient petroglyphs (images carved into stone) portray a vivid history of daily life. Next is “The Tepees,” an otherworldly landscape of tent-shaped sandstone hills, striated with gray, blue, rust, and white.
Farther down the road, turn onto the mile-long loop that leads to Blue Mesa, a region of steel-blue bentonite clay, whose sedimentary layers trapped fossils of ancient ferns. Giant Logs Trail, Long Logs Trail, and Agate House Trail offer the largest concentrations of logs (a prehistoric logjam), with “Old Faithful,” a 10-foot-wide log, looming at the top of Giant Logs Trail. The trails are paved and well maintained, providing easy access for strollers and wheelchairs. They offer unearthly views over an antediluvian wilderness of gray badlands.
Continue south to the Jasper Forest, and then to the Crystal Forest Trail. There, our fancy was captured by crystallized logs that lie where they fell millions of years ago. It is a cascade of colorful biscuits, as if waiting to be split for a giant fire. Their size has been their salvation, for they’re too large and heavy to be carted away by souvenir hunters. In fact, wood throughout the “forest” is almost solid quartz, and weighs 168 pounds per cubic foot.
These behemoths afford a vivid glimpse into the center of this geological phenomenon of quartz crystals. The addition of iron and manganese creates luminous starbursts, splotches, and rings of red, gold, purple, blue, and amber. These trees, now extinct, were members of the conifer family and reached heights of 100 feet more than 225 million years ago. Just standing in the middle of this fossil field, it’s easy to let your imagination turn to the Late Triassic period of 200 million years ago and the “Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”
At the end of the touring road is the Rainbow Forest Museum. In case you missed it at the other visitors center, you can see the Timeless Impressions video here as well. Enthusiastic park rangers are happy to explain the difference between Phytosaurs, Coelophysis, and Metoposaurs and to offer examples of the different types of fossils found in the park. A gift shop and fossil exhibits are available for inspection as well.
The Agate House Trail runs one mile from the museum parking lot. Agate House is located along the trail, within the Rainbow Forest. This small, eight-room pueblo was created entirely of blocks of petrified wood by the Puebloans 1,000 years ago.
Paleontologists continue to study at Petrified Forest National Park, for it is considered to be one of the richest Triassic deposits of fossils in the world. It’s a work in progress; a great vault of scientific information.
In retrospect, if we were traveling east to New Mexico and beyond, we would enter the park at the south via U.S. 180, to avoid having to backtrack. Regardless of your travel plans, if they take you through eastern Arizona, be assured this park and its 28-mile drive through time are worthy of a change in your schedule.
Petrified Forest National Park
1 Park Road
P.O. Box 2217
Petrified Forest, AZ 86028