Over 200 million years ago, what is now semi-arid grassland in northeastern Arizona was a tropical wonderland with tall trees lining stream banks. You can still see these gigantic trees in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. They look exactly as they did when they fell, but are no longer wood. Today these trees are solid quartz.
What is a Petrified Tree?
When the trees fell in the floodplain so many million years ago – knocked down by water or wind – they were buried in sediment. Over time the silica enriched groundwater seeped into the wood and replaced the organic modules, replicating the original tree in quartz. These trees were solid rock by the time T’Rex wandered the earth!
Fossilized trees remained buried until climate change turned this region into high desert where wind and water finally exposed them. Drive through the park today and you will see downed trees and logs on all sides.
Giant stone trees lay where they fell. It is crazy to see all these logs. Some are complete trees – like this tree that has been preserved by the National Park Service by placing a concrete bridge below it.
Others are full trees but cut into segments, almost like someone took an axe to them. But no-one cut these trees. They are rock solid. They just split of their own accord as they settled, sheared into pieces much like a piece of chalk breaks.
These quartz trees are heavy – over 200 pounds per cubic foot. We tried to lift a segment. No way!
As you walk along the trails, you walk along almost complete trees, huge roots and colorful segments – red, grey and white – created by the metals in the water. Red came from the iron oxide; black and grey from magnesium oxide and white is pure quartz.
Polish these up and they are beautiful. But please, don’t take a piece home. It is illegal to take anything from a National Park. If you can’t live without it, you can buy polished petrified wood outside the park; not harvested from within the National Park.
What to do at Petrified Forest National Park
Established in 1906 as a National Monument and re-designated as a National Park in 1962, Petrified Forest National Park protects 221,390 acres; 50,000 of which are designated wilderness. You can’t possibly see it all.
A 28 mile north south road traverses the park, providing access to the visitor center, museum, walking trails, ruins, petroglyphs, picnic areas, overlooks and vistas. Some of the colors are amazing. Catch the Painted Desert or Tepees area at dawn or dusk to see experience the most striking contrasts.
Many of the stops along the road offer short trails, with exhibits and informational signs. You can get out and walk among the log falls and see petrified logs embedded in the bluffs or strewn across the valley.
If you want to get off the main road, there is backcountry hiking and camping, permit required. But anywhere you go, be aware that there is NO water. Even on a short hike in the heat, be sure to take along a bottle of water and avoid the mid-day sun, especially in the very hot summer months.
Along with the fossil history, this area reveals human history as well. You can visit the remains of what was a 100 room village built between 1250 and 1380. More recent history is in evidence in where historic Route 66 crosses the park, There is a fun monument and remains of old cars.
The Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark built in the 1920’s is now a museum. This was once a “roadside attraction” offering food, lodging and tours of the surrounding area. Restored by the CCC, this building offers another glimpse into the human history of the area.
How to get to Petrified Forest National Park
The easiest, and probably most common, way to get into the park is from the north off of Interstate 40. This is where you will find the Painted Desert Visitor Center. From there you can take a circular drive that stops at a number of overlooks with petrified wood and gorgeous vistas over the Painted Desert.
The north entrance is just 24 miles east of Holbrook, Arizona and 88 miles west of Gallup, New Mexico. It is about 270 miles from Phoenix, Arizona.
Where to stay at Petrified Forest National Park
There is no lodging or camping within the park, but you aren’t far from places to stay. There are lots of accommodations along the I40 and at least on campground just outside the south entrance to the park.
We actually camped at Lyman Lake State Park, south of St. Johns, Arizona. That was about 60 miles away, but a lovely campground and a lake – unusual for the desert!
You can easily spend several hours in the park, so plan to stay somewhere in the area so that you can take your time and really take in all aspects of this unique National Park.
Need Help Planning Your Visits?
If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.