The Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest like few other places on our planet. You are literally standing in one of the very few spots on our world where you can see an immediate vision of how things are now versus how they were millions of years ago. Northern Arizona today is a high desert with a fairly brutal climate – very hot summers; the sun literally burns. Winters can be very cold due to the higher elevations, and the climate is dry with little precipitation. At first the landscape seems rather barren; many people pass through here thinking the area is ugly and without merit – a vast, lifeless barren desert that is best traversed as quickly as possible. This place is anything but that. It is literally a time capsule teeming with wonders and mysteries.
Suddenly you are transported back in time on the same location 220 million years ago! This is a time so ancient it is before T-Rex’s and triceratops. The only thing that is similar to today about northern Arizona is that its hot. But you are not in North America anymore. It doesn’t yet exist. You are in Pangea, an ancient continent that predates everything on the globe that we know today.
This area is hot and very humid; it is swampy, rather like Florida or Louisiana now. Yet things are still different from what we know today. The land is covered with ancient ferns, horsetails and cycads. 180 plus foot tall conifers obscure your view (that’s 55 meter tall trees). There are primitive dinosaurs and reptiles. Ancient crocodilians are monstrous, eating fish, crustaceans like crayfish, and other reptiles.
The region sometimes experiences massive, violent floods washing away everything in sight. Some of those giant redwood size conifers have now been uprooted and carried downstream in the raging torrents. Many of those trees get covered in mud and lay buried along with their drowned animal counterparts.
As the eons pass, the continent changes due to the movement of the continental plates (continental drift). The climate has changed changed too. Over the eons those trees and animals that were buried in the mud are now under many feet of dirt and silt. The pressure on those ancient life forms is enormous, and over many, many centuries that organic matter was slowly replaced by minerals that eventually become rock.
More millennia have passed, and the sediment covering the remains of that ancient forest has now been eroded away from many centuries of wind and rain. Now, you are back in the present, and what lies before your eyes are the uncovered remnants of a land lost in time over 220 million years ago.
Now you understand where you are. Let’s go exploring.
I entered Petrified Forest National Park from the east via Interstate 40. Along here old Route 66 is long gone. As you come into the park and exit the visitor’s center area, the first things you’ll see are views of the Painted Desert area off to the north of the park road. These “badlands” are spectacular, and I can only imagine the intense colors produced here near sunset. Petrified Forest National Park is one of the very few national parks that actually closes at night. Why? They close to prevent the theft of the ancient petrified wood and other fossils. So, if you plan on visiting the park, and you want to do some photography in the “good light”, plan accordingly.
The park has numerous hiking trails in all areas, and I would really like to return in the spring or later fall to further explore the Painted Desert area. I was really excited to go see the historic Painted Desert Inn built in the early 1900s, but alas COVID struck again. The only thing open were the public restrooms, but after my New Mexico experiences, at least this was a big plus.
The Inn is now a park museum, and I am sure it would have been well worth the time. The park is really vast, and I had only planned one day for a visit, so my time was limited. I decided to push onward toward the southwest, to see as much of the petrified forest as possible.
As I proceeded onward, the road takes a southerly bend and crosses quite a bit of high desert grasslands before finally beginning to snake around. Suddenly I was greeted with some absolutely stunning badlands. OK, I had to pull over here and give the camera some exercise.
One of the coolest things on the trip happened to me here. While I was photographing this scene, a young man came up to me and asked if I would possibly take his photograph in the road with these hills in the background. I said, “Sure”. As we were talking I learned that he was a brand new college graduate on his first cross-country road trip on the way to his new job down in the Phoenix metro area. He pulled out this big peace flag that he had made, and asked if I would take a couple of photos of him holding up the flag for his friends back east. So, my little friendly snapshot just got more interesting. I greatly regret not taking a shot of him and his flag with my camera. I found out that he had never been in the western US, so this was quite an adventure for him. It is always so fun to meet new and exciting folks, and his “peace” flag was really interesting because he had made the design himself and was very involved in the Black Lives Matter protests and in protesting our country’s seemingly endless involvement in foreign wars. He reminded me of our lives back in 1970s.
Proceeding onward around the next few hills and bends and I finally reached my quest – the petrified forest area. Broken logs and large stumps were scattered everywhere!
I have to share another funny story here. As I was taking a quick break under a shady pavilion area with some signage explaining the things that we were seeing, I overheard a conversation between a mother and her teenage son.
Mom – “I just can’t believe how interesting this wood is. Some if it almost looks like rock.”
Son – “Mom, it is rock; it is petrified wood that turned into rock millions of years ago from the high pressures underground.”
Mom – “No son, it’s wood. The name of the park is the Petrified Forest – not petrified rocks!”
OK, now I am having a really tough time keeping my mouth shut and not not laughing, but my need to hear the rest of the conversation is keeping me from walking away laughing.
Son – “Mom, it used to be wood millions of years ago, but now it’s rock. That’s why it’s ‘petrified wood’.”
Mom – “No son, that’s impossible. You can’t turn wood into rock!”
Well, now I was about to explode from trying to not bust out laughing hysterically! The only things to do were continue my hike and take more photos.
Most of the petrified log photos above were taken between the Jasper Forest and Crystal Forest areas of the park. I decided that it was time to move farther south and visit the Long Logs and Agate House areas. These hikes are across the road from the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitors Center near the south entrance to the park from US 180. I found a parking place in the visitors center lot, grabbed a cold drink from the little store and ate my lunch sitting on the tool box in the back of my truck.
After a nice lunch break and some people watching, I hit the trail over to the Long Logs areas. This trail being longer was less crowded, so I was able to really just kick back, take in the sights and photograph at my leisure. One really interesting characteristic about the Petrified Forest National Park is that nearly everywhere you go the terrain and landscape changes. Even on this short hike, the landscape varied considerably.
This hike was beginning to get really fascinating as the terrain kept changing. The number of really long petrified logs was astounding! I paced off a couple, trying to get a rough idea of their current length. One log was at least 75 feet (22.9 meters), and that was only the portion that was visible above ground. I could see clearly that the log extended under the ground as well.
The longer I was here, there more I found to photograph. And the more fascinating and enchanting the park became. I really didn’t want to leave.
That’s probably about as many photos of petrified wood as you can take in one day. I hope now you can begin to understand why it has taken me so long to put this story together. And I really hope that you can appreciate a bit of the Petrified Forest National Park from my photos and narrative. This is probably one of the most fascinating and interesting places that I have ever been. And it only took me over 50 years to return to it!
Well, I hope you have enjoyed this story and my photos, and I sincerely hope that you can one day soon find time to visit this geological jewel of North America. Happy blogging, and thanks for taking your time to stop by.