The Petrified National Forest: More than 225 Millions Years in the Making
The Petrified National Forest, located nearby Holbrook, Arizona in the Northeastern portion of the state, is named as so for its’ large quantities of petrified wood. The forest was declared a national monument in 1906. 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 temperatures were more tropical in nature. It is impossible to imagine that dinosaurs once roamed in a much different area than that which stands today. Paleontologists continue to study the Petrified Forest; many fossils of smaller dinosaurs no more than human size have been identified.
Petrified wood forms when the 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 downed 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, you will notice a variety of different colors. This variation in color results 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. Over the years many pieces of wood have been stolen, especially in the 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.
During your visit, the top thing you will want to do is take the scenic 28 mile drive around the park. Aside from the 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 that will give you a closer look at the beautiful petrified wood.
An Overview of the Maintained Trails
There are 7 maintained trails, all found in various locations on the scenic drive. I recommend completing at least a few to get more of an up close 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. Long Logs and Agate House can be combined 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 is named for the amazing crystals found in the petrified wood. It’s one of the best options for getting a close look at the petrified wood and offers some of the best views out of all the maintained trails.
Blue Mesa (1 mile) – Nice views of the badland hills and petrified wood can be experienced 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 was 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 back country trails. Most of these are a bit lengthy, so be sure to set out early enough in the day and brings 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, along with watching an 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 observe amazing views from the overlook, or get a more hands on experience by completing the 2.5 mile back country Jasper Forest hike for a better view.
Agate Bridge – This 11o foot log was formed naturally by the natural forces of water and will eventually be destroyed by this same force.