You've known about The Petrified Forest since childhood. It's the place in the desert where trees have been transformed into stone.
In fact, the national park astride Interstate 40 east of Holbrook is more than colorful rock. It's a fascinating, complicated, mind-challenging story, too.
The short of it – 225 million years ago, this fringe of the present-day Painted Desert was a vast floodplain with tall conifers and plenty of reptiles, amphibians and dinosaurs. The trees fell, and tumbled as driftwood – limbs stripped — in numerous swollen rivers. Trunks were buried by many feet of silt, mud and ash. Groundwater laden with silica infiltrated and replaced the wood cells, the trees becoming precise molds for newborn rock. The silica crystallized into quartz. Petrified wood was born.
When all this happened, central Arizona occupied a different position on the face of the globe. It has since moved through the phenomenon of continental drift. The surface rose. Erosion stripped away the soft sediment layers. Harder trees of stone remain.
In Petrified Forest National Park, trees of stone are visible in many and different presentations along short hikes from parking areas. Giant Logs has the park's fattest trees, including "Old Faithful," whose root ball fell apart more than 40 years ago. Park workers built a concrete pillar to repair it, an act that wouldn't occur with today's National Park Service approach of "nature, less interrupted."
At Long Logs, trails lead to a restored house built of agates atop a bluff. Native peoples used it as a place of shelter and look-out.
Melting snow forms minute streams at The Crystal Forest. Tiny, thin, weak rivulets are nevertheless gray with the region's soft sediments, slowly pulling away layers that likely cover more petrified wood.
A splendid highlight is the Blue Mesa, where tumbled blocks of petrified wood occupy ravines within eroding purple hills. Puerco Pueblo has the stone walls of ancient occupation, along with the petroglyphs of horned animals, and tall birds with amphibians in their beaks.
Across I-40 and historic Route 66, below the historic Painted Desert Inn, more trees of rock sit on the flanks of bright red hills in the Painted Desert Wilderness Area. They seem to be out of place, yet they're exactly where they belong.
In the mid-1800s, the Painted Desert "and its trees turned to stone" were revealed to expanding America. People came, and took what beautiful rock they could move. President Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged the threat, and set aside part of the landscape as the Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906. It became a national park in 1962. Addition and protection continues; President George W. Bush, often assailed for his record on the environment, signed law expanding the park from 93,533 acres to 218,533 acres.
Like its geology, Petrified Forest National Park is not a static place. Large tracts of it remain untouched by trail nor road. With wind, rain, snow and time, more of its wonder shall be revealed.
For more info
Petrified Forest National Park is about a 4-1/2 hour drive from Northwest Tucson. Nearest accommodations are in Holbrook, on Interstate 40 west of the park. For information, go to www.nps.gov/pefo