Petrified National Forest
I just got back from family vacation in Arizona. We went to see the Grand Canyon but on the trip we were able to stop and see the Petrified National Forest near Holbrook.
Petrified Forest Background
The park is home to one of the most magnificent fossil displays anywhere - the fossilized remains of a 225 million year old conifer forest. The trees, Schilderia, Woodworthia, and Araucarioxylon, fell and were washed into flooded streams and washed into floodplains. There, they were covered by silt, mud, and volcanic ash which cut off oxygen and slowed the process of decay allowing silica packed groundwater to seep into the logs. Over time the silica crystalized into quartz transforming the wood into fossils. More time passed and the contents took their present positions and this area was uplifted. Wind and water gradually wore away the rock layers and exposed the petrified wood, plants, crocodile-like reptiles, giant amphibians, and dinosaurs found in the Petrified National Forest. The fossils are washing out of a formation collectively known as Chinle Formation, which is subdivided into the following members: the Blue Mesa Member, the Sonsela Member, the Petrified Forest Member, and the Owl Rock Member.
Watch an HD Video of My Visit to the Petrified Forest
The Sights of Petrified Forest
We entered the Petrified forest on the north end just off I-40. There was another entrance closer to Holbrook but we followed directions from Google Maps which optimized our trip for time to the park. The exit closer to Holbrook would have taken us to the south end of the park first where all the best petrified wood is. Since I'm a "Save the Best for Last" kind of guy, I'm glad we went in the park on the north end and saw the best fossils at the end of our visit.
The Painted Desert
Our first stop on the north end of the Petrified Forest National Park was the southern edge of the Painted Desert. We arrived at about 1 pm when the sun was directly overhead. The colors of the desert were beautiful then, but I can only imagine how they look as sunrise or sunset. Lots of fossils have been recovered in the Painted Desert, but we didn't see any.
We continued south on the 28 mile road through the middle of the park and our next stop was a spot called The Teepees, named for conical hills that resemble a group of teepees side by side. I'd never seen anything like them back east so I was really impressed at the both the color and shape of this area of the park. The white layers are sandstone, with the cap of the teepees being clay. Dark layers have a high carbon content. The darker reds consist of iron stained siltstone. The reddish bases are colored by iron oxide, aka hematite. We also started to notice more smaller pebble sized stones in this area of the park. I've been trained to look in pebbles for fossils in South Carolina where I'm from, so in my mind it is easy to see why this area is so rich with fossils.
The Blue Mesa
The next stop on our trip through the Petrified Forest was called the Blue Mesa. This was the first place we saw actual petrified wood. There was one piece eroding from right under the road that was easily 4 feet in diameter if not more. Still the terrain was littered with a lot of pebbles and I found myself scanning them, looking for any type of fossil besides wood. I didn't see anything right next to the parking area and a sign said the desert was closed so we drove on looking for a better place to see fossils.
The Agate Bridge
Not too far from the Blue Mesa was a spot called the Agate Bridge, named after a massive 110 foot petrified log eroded out naturally from the surrounding sandstone to form a bridge. Early conservationists thought the fantastic monument to nature needed support so the constructed a concrete support beneath the log to support it. Current national park philosophy favors natural forces to sculpt the landscape, and if the Agate Bridge were discovered now it would be left in its natural state. Why? Because eventually the forces that eroded out the Agate Bridge in the first place will continue and cause the log to fall anyway, with or without supports.
Almost across the road from the Agate Bridge is another point of interest known as the Jasper Forest. The place where we took photos and video was from the bluff where an unimaginable number of petrified wood eroded. As unbelievable a sight as the Jasper Forest is today, it was even more incredible when this spot was first discovered. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Jasper Forest was plundered by commercial collectors who wanted to sell the fossils as souvenirs. Many tons were carted away in railroad cars, piece by piece. Public furor over the destruction of the Jasper Forest helped provided much of the impetus that led to the establishment of a national monument to protect the Petrified Forest.
Further down the park road is the Crystal Forest, named for crystals that formed in the centers of the massive petrified logs that litter the landscape. Most of the crystals have been removed by prior visitors to the park. All that remains are holes where the crystals originally formed. Apparently there are still crystals to be seen somewhere along the trail, but we didn't see any. I don't think we really understand what we missed because we were still fascinated by the immense size of the petrified logs all around us. I do wonder what the crystals looked like, though. They had to be amazing to see, because the wood left behind was still beautiful.
Finally we reached the end of the Petrified Forest at a spot called Long Logs or the Giant Logs Trail. This was hands down the best part of the park with immense logs everywhere. No matter which way you walk, the ground is covered with fossilized wood of every color imaginable. Red, white, purple, yellow, black, green, and everything inbetween, the petrified wood at Long Logs was the best. I'm glad we saw it last because I feel like I might have been disappointed with other areas which do not have as many fossils. One of the largest petrified logs, nicknamed Old Faithful, is in this part of the park. Old Faithful is 35 feet long and is estimated to weigh 44 tons! In 1962, the giant log was struck by lightning and subsequently repaired, something that would not have been done today.
I am so thankful that the Petrified Forest has been preserved as much as it has been for us to see it today. I can only imagine what this incredible place looked like before it was protected. Even though it is now illegal to remove anything from the park, tons of petrified wood still leaves the park every year despite the admonitions. Perhaps its the attitude that "just one little piece won't matter" multiplied by millions of visitors each year that is the threat? Even though I am an avid fossil collector, I resisted the temptation to take even a tiny chip. After a tour of the visitors center, I saw letters sent in anonymously returning wood taken from the park. Some mentioned a terrible run of luck, others just guilt. From these and many other similar letters over the years has risen the superstition that punishment for stealing wood from the park is a curse! Luckily, there are rock shops both inside and outside of the park where legally collected identical petrified wood can be purchased very reasonably and 100% curse free. That's where I got my souvenir. I also heard there are places on public land where Arizona petrified wood can be collected legally, though with the entire family in tow I didn't dare an excursion into the unknown. That might be a tale I get to tell some other time.