No, this post is not about snakes…
…what is 205 to 225 million years old and looks like polished granite, although its many times heavier? It can be found in every state in the country, yet, here in northeastern Arizona lies one of the greatest concentrations of it on Earth. This place is the Petrified Forest National Park.
It was created as a National Monument in 1906 by then President Theodore Roosevelt. Congress designated it a National Park on December 9, 1962 and today it encompasses 138,788 acres or 346 square miles. Interstate 40, which runs east/west (the even number signifies that fact, odd numbered interstates run north/south), separates this park into two distinct areas. Travelers entering the northern section of the park can get off I-40 at exit 311 for the Entrance Station at the Painted Desert Visitors Center. The Rainbow Forest Museum welcomes visitors at the South Entrance. There is a 28 mile road bisecting the park from north to south that connects the two Visitors Centers and makes this an easy park to explore even if you only have one day to do so.
We arrived at a nearby RV Park (there are no campsites within this NP) early Tuesday afternoon, 5/23/2017. Once situated, we agreed to explore the northern portion of the park that afternoon and the southern portion the next day. The four of us started the afternoon tour with a visit to the Painted Desert Visitors Center. There, a Ranger advised us on some interesting hiking options and suggested we watch the movie, Timeless Impressions, explaining the park’s historic, geologic and cultural heritages. Those of you who know Arthur can appreciate just how much fun Siobhan and I had watching him try to sit still long enough to watch the 18 minute film (Linda, on the other hand, actually paid attention)!
After the film we all felt the need for some exercise. We made a few quick stops at the various vistas along the road to check out the views of the Painted Desert, a colorful 150 mile section of badlands that stretches almost all the way to the Grand Canyon. You will see in the pictures how this place got its name with the varied colors and shades in the rock walls. Then we hiked (walked, really) the Painted Desert Rim Trail that included a stop at Kachina Point, the location of the Painted Desert Inn. Although no longer open for overnight guests, this 1920s southwestern adobe style lodge is now a National Historic Landmark and a delight to tour. Just down the road we came to a point in the park that intersects with the old Route 66 where a vintage (old, really old) car marks this historic spot.
Just a quick twenty minute drive down the highway and we were all back at the RV Park for happy hour, dinner, great conversations with friends and a good nights sleep to prepare for a busy Wednesday. We decided to take both RVs to the southern entrance of the park, about 45 minutes away, to drive the entire park road back up to the north entrance where we could pick up I-40 to continue our journey eastward. Since Siobhan and I had some issues to attend to with Our Way, Arthur & Linda planned an afternoon hike to find a special mesa in the desert (only 40% of the people that try it actually find it) while we headed off to New Mexico around 1PM to tend to business (a story for a separate post).
First stop once inside the southern entrance was the Rainbow Forest Museum (no film this time!) where there are magnificent pieces of petrified wood on display. Evidently, the samples did their job as RT & Linder were inspired to stop at the gift shop across the street to get a special piece of their own for back home. We also hiked the Giant Logs trail located right behind this visitor center for great views of some of the largest petrified logs in the park, including one named Old Faithful that is 10’ across at its base.
Perhaps you are wondering just how these giant logs turned to stone? Well we were too and learned that periodic floods toppled these trees and stranded them in channels where they settled into a mix of mud, sand and volcanic ash. The various chemicals, primarily silica, released from this mixture reacted with the wood to form tiny silica crystals that continued to grow and encase the wood over a very long time period, turning it to stone. And all those beautiful colors came from the other chemicals in that mixture. The greens come from pure reduced iron mixed with chlorophyll, white from pure silica, black from organic carbon, blues and purples from manganese dioxide, reds and pinks from hematite (a form of oxidized iron), yellows, browns and oranges from goethite (a hydrated iron oxide). These logs were preserved for centuries by layer upon layer of mud and silt.
It is fascinating to realize this desert was, a mere 225 million years ago, a tropical landscape with abundant vegetation where early dinosaurs and huge reptiles roamed, rivers flowed and 180’ conifers reached to the skies. Since then, continents have moved, regions were uplifted, climate changed and the river system was buried by layers of sediment. Wind and rain are responsible for peeling back the layers to give us a glimpse of what Arizona was like so long ago.
Stops at various vistas and short hikes along the road provided more opportunities to see this petrified wood and its myriad colors on display. Blue Mesa, a 3,5 mile loop road provided access to a step one mile trail through some of the most vibrant badlands in the park. Another stop at Newspaper Rock gave us binocular-assisted views of hundreds of petroglyphs, some more than 2,000 years old. We then ended our day in the park with a tour of Puerco Pueblo, an ancient village site that dates back 800 years, housing around 200 people in 100 – 125 rooms built around a central plaza and made of sandstone blocks. One special site was that of a timepiece they devised that to this day identifies the summer solstice with unbelievable accuracy. Ingenious.
You will have to check in with Arthur & Linda to find out if they found that special mesa in the desert. When they arrived at the RV park in New Mexico, we heard they had a great time hiking the trail.
Check back soon to learn of our next destination.