Mother Nature Shows Her Artistic Side

  I've always enjoyed badlands landscapes like this one. Mostly devoid of vegetation, the rugged, inhospitable terrain is simultaneously serene and melancholy. In addition to the beautiful landscape, Petrified Forest National Park is home to the countless petrified logs for which the park is named.

Traveling alone in December of 2005, Petrified Forest National Park was one of several parks and monuments I would visit on my solo 5-day Arizona trip. Located about 30 miles east of Holbrook, the park is in a relatively remote location... but if you're passing through the area on I-40, it's worth a stop. The 28 mile park road intersects with I-40 at its northern terminus and U.S. 180 on the south end. Since US 180 also intersects with I-40 in Holbrook, it is possible to visit the park without any backtracking and continue on your way across I-40. When driving to and approaching the park, the unremarkable terrain may lead one to wonder how there could be such beautiful and interesting sights nearby.


Petrified wood can be formed in many different ways, but ideal conditions are needed. After all, 99.999 percent of all trees eventually burn, decay, become furniture or meet some other fate that leaves no fossil record. Here is the thumbnail version as to how wood becomes fossilized... Wood is buried through any of a number of processes. Mineral-saturated seeps through the ground where the wood is buried. The dissolved mineral precipitates within the woodís cell structure, which acts as a mold. The mineral precipitation continues as the softer wood continues to decay and wash away. Eventually, nothing is left except mineral, in many cases retaining the same shape as the original chunk of wood. Any of a number of dissolved minerals may be involved in the process. The most common (including in Petrified Forest) is silica. The precipitated silica eventually becomes a mineral called chert. Trace elements, like iron and manganese, add color to the petrified wood.

Petrified wood is not especially rare. In fact, it has been found in all 50 U.S. states. However, Arizonaís Petrified Forest is particularly noteworthy for several reasons...

1. The amount of petrified wood and size of the largest chunks is remarkable.

2. The wood is especially colorful and beautiful. The rainbow of vivid pastel purples, pinks, oranges and yellows are awesome.

3. The petrified wood has undergone very little metamorphosis. That is, it has retained its original shape. In some specimens, growth rings are clearly visible.

4. It is in a protected and relatively undisturbed area.

The park has two visitor centers... one near each park entrance. The larger visitor center, the Painted Desert Visitor Center, is located just inside the parks north entrance off I-40. Both visitor centers feature several exhibits and a 20-minute orientation film. The Painted Desert Visitor Center seems to have been constructed here for the sake of convenience, as its immediate surroundings are not particularly scenic. The Rainbow Forest Museum is located near the parkís south entrance. It is home to the Giant Logs Trail.


The 4/10-mile Giant Logs Trail has the parkís highest easily-accessible concentration of petrified wood. Here the ground is virtually covered with chunks of brilliantly colored 200-year-old fossilized wood. The parkís largest log, dubbed Old Faithful, is located along this trail. I estimate that this log is about 30-35 feet long and 4-4.5 feet on diameter. The larger logs have a tendency to cleave parallel to logís diameter, therefore exposing a complete cross section. The picturesque trail has some badlands scenery in the background. The trail is paved, but it is not wheelchair-friendly. Numerous steps cross the hilly terrain. If a visitor were to make only one stop in the park to view the wood, Rainbow Forest Museum and Giant Logs Trail would by far be the best choice.


On the northern four or five miles of the park road, near I-40, there are several "points" or overlooks to view the barren, but beautiful Painted Desert. The heavily eroded hills make for a hostile environment for both flora and fauna. Millennia of erosion have exposed the multi-colored rock layers for which the area is named. Some of the strata are very thick, some are quite thin. I arrived just as the sun was beginning to set. The rugged terrain cast severe shadows across the landscape.


I spent 90 percent of my time on the Giant Logs Trail and the various Painted Desert overlooks, but Petrified Forest National Park has several other trails and stops along the main road. For the sake of completeness, here is a list of those stops from south to north.

1. Long Logs Trail - Just north of the Rainbow Forest museum, this 1.6 mile (round trip) hiking trail winds through a heavy concentration of petrified wood.

2. Agate House Trail - A continuation of the Long Logs Trail, this 2-mile (round trip) trail leads to a pueblo mado of petrified wood.

3. Crystal Forest - A 0.8 mile (round trip) highlighting some particularly beautiful petrified wood specimens.

4. Jasper Forest - Accessible by car via a short spur off the main road, this stop has no trail and feature numerous petrified logs.

5. Agate Bridge - No trail. Itís a reinforced log that bridges two sides of rock formation.

6. Blue Mesa - Accessible by a three mile spur off the main road, this stop has a rugged one-mile trail featuring both badlands and petrified logs.

7. The Tepees - Massive badlands formations whose shape and rock layers look like a group of the stereotypical native American dwellings.

8. Newspaper Rock - This spot features on hundreds of ancient petroglyphs etched into stone. You canít get close to them, but fixed telescopes are mounted, so visitors can see them.

9. Puerco Pueblo - This stop has a short trail to the ruins of a 750-year old pueblo.

10. Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark - A pueblo-revival style structure built in 1924. The building has been perpetually plagued by structural problems. Although it was closed during my visit, it has recently been rehabilitated.


After seeing the beautiful petrified wood, most visitors would love to take home a fist-sized chunk for their curio cabinet. However, removal of even the smallest amout of petrified wood is strictly prohibited. And when I say "strict", I mean jagged-toothed school marm strict. There are signs all over the place reminding visitors not to take any petrified wood, and of the fines and imprisonment one will face for doping so. All park literature contains such a warning. The rangers will remind you when you enter the park. They will also ask you if you have any petrified wood in your vehicle from outside the park. If you do, they will log it and mark it as such, so the rangers inside the park will know you havenít stolen it. The warnings are so frequent, that visitors will have no excuse for ignorance of the rules. About a tenth of a mile from each of the two park exits, there is a road sign that reads "vehicle inspection ahead", then thereís a place to pull over before continuing to the exit. I am curious as to how many rocks have been dumped at these pullovers. My vehicle was not inspected, nor was I asked to pull over... but Iím certain that this is not just an idle threat. Of course, this is for the protection of the park Ďs resources so that future visitors may enjoy them. Law-abiding persons would feel as though they had committed the most despicable of felonies should they not heed the warnings and abide by these rules... but the frequency and sternness of the warnings imply that rock theft (thatís what they call it) remains a problem.

Now... if youíd like to have a piece of souvenir petrified wood... there are plenty of area rock shops and tourist traps where you can purchase some. One large shop dedicated almost exclusively to petrified wood is located within sight of the parks south entrance. Some other shops are located along I-40 and in the nearby town of Holbrook. They arenít hard to find.


The erosion has uncovered rocks that were deposited in the Triassic period, over 200 million years ago. This makes the park fertile ground for paleontologists. Several dinosaurs have been discovered here. They claim to discover an average of two previously unknown animal species a year within the parkís boundaries.

The park has no lodging, campgrounds or dining. This lack of facilities combined with the parkís remote location makes Petrified Forest less of a destination, and more of a roadside attraction for those who happen to be driving I-40, perhaps to the Grand Canyon. If you are passing through, you might as well at least drive through the park. It will break up the monotony of a boring stretch of road... And youíll be treated to some beautiful rocks, unique geology and fantastic landscapes... with a sprinkling of history, archaeology and paleontology.

Petrified Forest National Park Website