The Petrified National Forest: More than 225 Millions Years in the Making
The Petrified National Forest, located nearby Holbrook in the Northeastern portion of Arizona, is named as so for its’ large quantities of petrified wood. In 1906, the forest became a national monument. During the Triassic Period (which came just before Jurassic and is therefore known as “Dawn of the Dinosaurs”), the land which now stands as a desert, was flowing with rivers, streams, and humongous trees. The temperature was more tropical in nature. It is impossible to imagine that dinosaurs once roamed in an area much different than that which stands today. Paleontologists continue to study the Petrified Forest. They have identified many fossils of smaller dinosaurs no more than human size.
What is petrified wood?
Petrified wood forms when trees are buried under sediment, thus causing mineral enriched waters to replace the original plant material. The result is a fossil. Over 225 million years ago, a volcano knocked down the trees. The trees sunk and the volcanic ash produced silica in the water which replaced the wood with quartz.
As you spend your day at the park exploring the wood, you will notice a variety of different colors. These brilliant colors arise from varying levels of manganese, iron, and carbon in the wood. The process of petrification turns the tree into a rock made up almost entirely of quartz, which gives it a gem-like quality. Sadly, thieves have stolen many pieces of wood, especially in Crystal Forest. The park has very strict rules prohibiting any collecting of the petrified wood. In fact, if you see anyone collecting, you can anonymously report them.
Things to do
During your visit, the top thing you will want to do is take the scenic 28 mile drive around the park. Aside from seeing petrified wood, you will also get to explore ancient petroglyphs, take in the stunning beauty of The Painted Desert, see the historic location where Route 66 once passed through the park, and walk a few short trails which will give you a closer look at the beautiful petrified wood.
7 maintained trails are all located along the scenic drive. I recommend completing at least a few to get more of an upclose look at the petrified wood, along with excellent views of the surrounding desert landscapes. Below are the various trails you will come across on your visit.
Agate House (2 miles) – Located near the Rainbow Forest Museum, this trail takes you to an ancient pueblo (made out of petrified wood) that was occupied about 700 years ago.
Long Logs (1.6 miles) – Also located near the Rainbow Forest Museum, the Long Longs trail is home to one of the largest collections of petrified wood in the forest. Combine Long Logs and Agate House together to form one 2.6 mile trail. This is a great opportunity to see a variety of petrified wood if you have the extra time.
Giant Logs (0.4 miles) – Located just behind the museum, the Giant Logs trail is a great option as it is short, easy enough for all fitness levels, and takes you past some of the biggest and most colorful logs in the forest, including “Old Faithful” which is 10 feet wide!
Crystal Forest (0.75 miles) – This short trail’s name comes from the amazing crystals found naturally in the petrified wood. Hiking this trail is the best option for getting a closeup look at the petrified woo. Also, Crystal offers the best views out of all the maintained trails.
Blue Mesa (1 mile) – Nice views of the badland hills and petrified wood can be enjoyed along this easy 1 mile long path. It’s also interesting to note that paleontologists have discovered many plant and animal fossils here.
Puerco Pueblo (0.3 miles) – This short loop trail takes you to the remains of a 600 year old pueblo. There are 2 overlooks which offer a decent view of various ancient petroglyphs.
Look closely at the many petroglyphs carved in the rocks below
A summer solstice marker used to mark the passage of the seasons
Painted Desert Rim Trail (1 mile) – This unpaved path offers one-of-a-kind views of the beautiful Painted Desert. Bring your camera for this one!
As an alternative, if you are feeling adventurous, are in great shape, and want to explore the scenery in a more remote setting, you can enjoy one of the park’s backcountry trails. Most of these are a bit lengthy, so be sure to set out early enough in the day and bring lots of water. Check out the Petrified National Forest website’s listing of the different off the beaten path trails to choose amongst.
Points of Interest along the Scenic Drive
Rainbow Forest Museum – This is a great place to start your journey as you can explore exhibits on prehistoric creatures and petrified wood. Also be sure to watch the introductory film about the park. From here you can check out the Giant Logs Trail and the Agate House trail.
Jasper Forest – Home to a large collection of petrified wood: one of the most massive collections within the park. Here you can take in amazing views via the overlook, or get a more hands on experience by completing the 2.5 mile backcountry Jasper Forest hike for a better view.
Agate Bridge – This 110 foot log was formed naturally by the natural forces of water. It will eventually be destroyed by this same force.
Crystal Forest – Here you will find some of the most colorful pieces of petrified wood in the park, a result of the silica and minerals that infiltrated the wood. Unfortunately, many pieces have been stolen over the years. Regardless, there still remains a very large concentration to enjoy. As you stroll around the path, you will see a rainbow of different colors, varying based on the different combination of minerals. Some pieces appear to have been cut with a saw, however, this is actually a natural process.