Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona: Visions of heat and sun

Last year Dale bought a coffee table book called Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, by photographer QT Luong.  It basically chronicles the photographer’s long love affair with our national parks.   It took Luong over 20 years and dozens of trips, all of them self-financed, but he visited and photographed all 59 parks, and the book’s 500+ photos showcase just how extraordinary the United States is, both in the diversity of ecosystems and landscapes as well as the vast national parks system that makes the U.S. unique.

Now that we have a coffee table on which to display the book, it lies splayed across the surface, and every day I turn a page to reveal new pictures and parks.  The book is organized by regions—Pacific Coast & Mountains, Rockies and Prairie, Deserts, and so on (Alaska has its own section).  A few weeks ago, we reached the Colorado Plateau, which is basically the Four Corners area of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.  This region includes the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Zion, some of America’s most iconic destinations and places that make the Southwest so extraordinary.

Petrified Forest National Park is another one of those remarkable places.  One of three national parks in Arizona, Petrified Forest is an arid, colorful stretch of land that contains within its confines one of the largest collections of petrified wood in the world.

We visited Petrified Forest last July as part of our road trip.  We were headed west from Santa Fe to Flagstaff on Interstate 40, which bisects the park, so it was an easy side trip to make.  The northern section of the park includes a portion of the Painted Desert, and to the south lies the majority of the petrified wood.

We spent the afternoon driving the 28-mile park road, which runs north to south and includes overlooks of the Painted Desert as well as access to short trails that run amongst the highest concentrations of petrified wood.

The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert is a colorful badlands that runs southeast from Grand Canyon National Park to the Petrified Forest National Park.  A large portion of the Painted Desert is preserved within Petrified Forest as a wilderness area.

16th-century Spanish explorers named the area El Desierto Pintado (the Painted Desert).

The various layers of shale, siltstone, and mudstone contain manganese and iron compounds.  Pigments within these compounds imbued the rocks with various hues, and gradual erosion revealed those colorful layers.

Petrified Forest

225 million years ago, Arizona was a subtropical rainforest filled with lush vegetation and conifers that soared up to 180 feet high.  Eventually the climate changed, rivers dried up, and plants and animals were buried under layers of sediment.  Over millions of years, the same erosion that revealed the colors of the painted desert also uncovered relics long buried there: dinosaur remnants, hundreds of species of plant fossils, and the crystallized remains of those enormous trees.

How did these trees transform into stone?  When they fell, the trees soaked up groundwater and silica from the soil and gradually crystallized into quartz.  A variety of minerals in the soil produced the amazing array of colors seen in the wood.

There are several short hikes that wind through petrified log jams and allow up-close views of these enormous pieces of wood.

I asked a park ranger whether the trails’ designers had moved the petrified pieces for logistical or aesthetic reasons, and she said that no, to her knowledge, the wood stayed where it lay.

The trail runs adjacent to a very long petrified log

The petrified wood remained virtually undisturbed for centuries, but as the United States expanded west, travel through the area substantially increased, as did the number of people collecting the petrified wood.  Conservationists and locals were alarmed, so after several petitions the area was preserved in 1906 as Petrified Forest National Monument.  Almost six decades later, it became a national park.

The petrified wood within the national park is protected, and it is illegal to remove any artifacts from park boundaries.  A rumor has long existed that, despite the illegality of it, visitors have stolen huge amounts of wood over time, but a recent NPS examination of historic photographs reveals that the bulk of the wood is intact and still lies in splendrous scatterings across the park.

Theft does happen, and regularly, as evidenced by the numerous packages and letters that park rangers have received over the decades from people wishing to return stolen rocks.  These rocks have been placed in a “conscience pile,” so called because many writers cite a guilty conscience as the reason for sending them back.  Some people go so far as to assert that the rocks are cursed, stating that they’ve had nothing but bad luck since acquiring their illicit artifacts.   The conscience pile sits on a park road away from public access, and the rocks are placed here because there is no way to return them to their original locations.  Some of the letters are displayed in the park’s Rainbow Forest Museum, and photographer Ryan Thompson was so fascinated by them that he published the book Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, which explores some of the stories people shared about the petrified wood “curse.”

To reduce the opportunity for theft, the park is only open for day use and closes at sundown.  It is, however, quite easy to legally obtain a petrified souvenir: less than 20% of Arizona’s petrified wood lies within the park, and there are plenty of opportunities to purchase a piece of wood both outside of and within park boundaries, as even the park gift shops sell pieces that were collected on private lands.

Humans in the Petrified Forest

The historic Painted Desert Inn (now a visitors center)

Petrified Forest National Park is rich in archeological treasures, and thousands of artifacts, including petroglyphs, pottery, and arrowheads, reveal evidence that people have lived in this area for at least 13,000 years.  Remnants of human history are on display throughout the park and include:

  • petroglyphs dating to around 2000 years ago
  • Puerco Pueblo, a 100+ room village occupied by Puebloan Indians from 1250-1380 CE
  • the Painted Desert Inn, completed around 1920 and included on the National Register of Historic Places
  • and a preserved section of Route 66, which once passed through the park.
A 1932 Studebaker, marking the location of Route 66, which once passed through the park. Petrified Forest is the only national park that preserves within its boundaries a section of the iconic highway.

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As I sit in our living room on this Sunday morning, it’s strange to contemplate Arizona in July.  It was hotter ‘n hell there, and the sun was relentless, while here, the temperature sits at ten degrees, and the sky is gray.  Snow is falling and projected to continue falling for the foreseeable future.  While I am in love with the stark beauty of winter in Alaska, it’s lovely to think of our afternoon spent exploring the colorful terrain of the Petrified Forest, and as I turn the pages of our coffee table book, I can’t wait to see which amazing park is next.


Notes:

Other than the discovery trails near the park road, there are no established hiking trails and no campgrounds within the park; however, wilderness comprises over 50,000 acres of Petrified Forest, and all of it is open to backcountry hikers and campers after a free permit is obtained.  The National Park Service website has suggestions for several “off the beaten path” hikes that look amazing.