Like the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest National Park is an open book to the earth's past. The park lies in the Painted Desert, whose colorful hills provide a world-famous resource of petrified wood and related fossils. Layers of the Chinle—a widespread geologic formation delicately tinted with reds, grays, oranges, and whites—have eroded to reveal remains of life from more than 200 million years ago frozen in stone. Rivers in that period carried fallen trees, some of which towered almost 200 feet high, onto the floodplains. Waterborne minerals transformed the logs to stone, replacing wood cells and filling the spaces between with brightly colored quartz and jasper crystals. This now-arid land would be unrecognizable today to its ancient inhabitants: primitive fish, massive amphibians, and fearsome reptiles.
Some of the strange animals that once crawled and swam here became fossils, now on display in park exhibits, though the trees have traditionally attracted the most attention. In the late 1800s, collectors carted away vast quantities of petrified wood logs for souvenirs or dynamited the stone trees to retrieve their crystals. This loss led to a battle for preservation, won in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill establishing the Petrified Forest National Monument. A 1958 act of Congress, followed by acquisition of new lands, changed the status of the land to a national park in 1962.
Research continues today to unravel the mysteries of how early life developed here those millions of years ago. Archaeologists attempt to trace the early human history of the park, which extends back more than 13,000 years to nomadic groups, some of whom later settled in pueblo farming communities before moving on by about 1400.
Flora and Fauna
A surprising amount of life exists today in the park, despite the meager nine-inch annual rainfall and lack of permanent water. Evening primrose, Indian paintbrush, mariposa lily, sunflowers, and other plants bloom when they receive sufficient moisture. Snakeweed and rabbitbrush are common and especially conspicuous in autumn when their bright yellow blooms cover the hills throughout the park. Other plants you're likely to see include buckwheat—a shrub that turns orange-brown in autumn—and saltbush, named for the tiny salt crystals formed on its leaves to conserve moisture.
Lizards often sun themselves atop petrified logs, but snakes will probably sense you before you see them; the western rattlesnake is the only poisonous species found here, and it's seldom encountered. The collared lizard may attain a length of 14 inches and sometimes sports bright yellow and green shades along with its signature black-and-white neck band. Also commonly seen, the plateau striped whiptail lizard's sleek body has black-and-white stripes and a bluish tail. Most bird species found in the park visit only during spring and autumn while migrating between north and south. Hardy residents that you're likely to sight anytime include ravens, rock wrens, and horned larks. Prairie dogs, black-tailed jackrabbits, and desert cottontails are often sighted, but pronghorn, coyotes, and bobcats also live here. The visitor center and museum offer checklists for birds and other animals.
The Three Sections
The southern section—the original national monument—features some of the finest petrified wood in the world. The central section contains the greatest number of prehistoric Native American sites. During their stay from about A.D. 300 to 1400, the ancestral pueblo people progressed from semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers to farmers who lived in permanent pueblos and likely had a complex ceremonial life. Scientists examining the numerous petroglyphs have discovered some that function as solar calendars.
The northern section of the park has many viewpoints of the Painted Desert, famed for its landscape of ever-changing colors—the effect of the sun playing on hills stained by iron, manganese, and other minerals. Colors are most vivid early and late in the day, fading toward noon. Added in 1932, this northern section is the largest part of the park.
Visiting the Park
Sightseeing in the park can be enjoyable at any time of year; just protect yourself from the sun in the warmer months. You can begin the paved 28.6-mile scenic drive through the park at either end. If eastbound, you'll save miles by using the south entrance off US 180 from Holbrook, then continuing east on I-40 from the north entrance after visiting the park. If westbound, the north entrance offers shorter access. The drive takes 45 minutes non-stop; the average visit runs about two hours, but you could easily spend all day by visiting each stop and doing some short hikes.
The park is open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily except Christmas, with extended hours likely in the summer and shoulder seasons. Winter snow or ice storms occasionally close the road. Start early if you'd like to enjoy all of the walks, views, and exhibits. Pets can come along if they're leashed and don't go into buildings or off paved surfaces. Admission, good for seven days, is $10 per vehicle ($5 per visitor by motorcycle, bicycle, or foot); free with a National Parks, Golden Eagle, Golden Age, or Golden Access pass. For more information, contact Park Headquarters at P.O. Box 2217, Petrified Forest, AZ 86028, 928/524-6228, www.nps.gov/pefo.
The visitor center near the north entrance and the museum near the south entrance offer exhibits illustrating park geology, fossils, ecology, and human history. They also sell books, videos, postcards, posters, and maps. A list of the day's talks and walks will be posted. You can also talk with staff, pick up a bird list and leaflets on special topics, and obtain backcountry permits. Don't remove any petrified wood or other objects from the park—officials have a “zero-tolerance policy” toward thieves. Rangers estimate that tons of petrified forest would be lost every year if visitors were to pocket even tiny illicit souvenirs.
The park has no campgrounds or lodging, though two gift shops just outside the south entrance offer primitive camping. Holbrook to the west of the park has the most extensive accommodations in the area. Picnic fixings come in handy. There's a cafeteria near the north entrance and a snack bar across from Rainbow Forest Museum inside the south entrance. Only the developed areas have water; you'll probably want to carry something to drink. Shops sell souvenirs outside the park near the south entrance, inside the park at the Rainbow Forest complex, and next to the visitor center at the north entrance station. Shops are the place to obtain petrified wood souvenirs, as the wood comes from private land outside the park boundaries.
The wilderness remains relatively undiscovered—only one of a thousand park visitors strays more than a short distance from pavement. You're free to roam across the landscape and make your own discoveries. Few trails exist, but natural landmarks help guide your way. Carry water and wear a hat for protection from the sun. Topo maps will be handy as the wilderness lacks signs. Rangers can give advice, suggest places to see, provide directions, and offer a hiking leaflet. They also issue the free permits required for overnight trips.
Campsites must be within the wilderness and at least one mile from the road. Even if you're planning only a long day hike, it's a good idea to discuss your plans with a ranger. Riding horses and pack animals is permitted, with a limit of six animals per party; carry feed and water. All backcountry users should note rules against campfires, pets, and firearms.
Painted Desert Wilderness in the north contains 43,020 acres of colorful mesas, buttes, and badlands. You can visit Native American sites and petroglyphs. Onyx Bridge, a 50-foot-long petrified tree in the Black Forest, about four miles roundtrip, is a good destination. Pilot Rock (elev. 6,295 feet), about seven miles northwest of the trailhead, stands as the highest point in the park. Kachina Point Trailhead provides access behind Painted Desert Inn.
The author likes to drive from south to north, as described here, then catch the late afternoon colors over the Painted Desert, but you can drive in either direction.
At the turnoff from US 180 for the park's south entrance, Petrified Forest Museum Gift Shop (928/524-3470) and Crystal Forest Museum and Gift Shop (928/524-3500) stand on opposite sides of the road. Although neither place is connected with the park, both exhibit dazzling collections of polished petrified wood, including giant log cross-sections and carvings. You can buy most pieces, along with unpolished petrified wood and other minerals, rocks, fossils, and Native American crafts. Both shops allow primitive camping for tents and RVs; electric hookups are an optional $10 (free with $50 purchase).
At the South Entrance Station, a ranger collects fees and gives out park brochures. If you've brought in unpolished wood or other objects, ask the ranger to mark or bag them to avoid any misunderstandings about the source. It's against the law to take anything from the park.
On entering the Rainbow Forest Museum, you're likely to be greeted by the cast of a huge skeleton. It might be a ferocious phytosaur, a large crocodile-like reptile that lurked in the forests and swamps here during the Late Triassic Epoch 225 million years ago, or a Placerias, a two- to three-ton reptile that roamed in herds during the same time. The skeletons and other exhibits provide a look at the strange environment of cycads, ferns, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and other early life that existed then. Rangers provide information and backcountry permits. You can purchase books, videos, posters, postcards, and maps. A
“Conscience Wood” exhibit contains stolen petrified wood, returned with apologetic and remorseful letters.
The Giant Logs Trail begins behind the museum, winding in a 0.4-mile loop past monster-sized logs—a rainbow of reds, yellows, grays, whites, blacks, pinks, and oranges. “Old Faithful” is 35 feet long and weighs an estimated 44 tons. Fred Harvey's Rainbow Gift Shop and Fountain offers Native American crafts, souvenirs, and a snack bar across the road from the museum. There's a picnic area nearby.
The trailhead for Long Logs Trail (1.6 miles roundtrip) and Agate House Trail (2 miles roundtrip) is across the bridge from the Rainbow Forest Museum area; a hike on both trails is three miles roundtrip. Each offers a good opportunity to look closely at ancient trees. The jumble of logs on the Long Logs Trail may have been a logjam buried in mud, sand, and volcanic ash. Many logs measure more than 100 feet long. Prehistoric tribes built the unusual Agate House entirely with chunks of colorful petrified wood. One of its eight rooms has been reconstructed to show their original size.
Crystal Forest Loop Trail has some of the prettiest and most concentrated petrified wood in the park along its paved three-quarter-mile path.
A turnoff for Jasper Forest leads a half mile to parking. The overlook provides great views to the west and north. Below lie pieces of petrified wood eroded from the hillsides.
Erosion carved out a gully beneath Agate Bridge, a large log, leaving a bridge. In years past, a Hashknife cowboy rode his horse across the log on a $10 bet. Rangers won't let you do this today—it's unsafe. Because of cracking, the log was braced with a concrete beam in 1917.
At the Blue Mesa turnoff, follow the side road about three miles to a series of panoramic overlooks atop the mesa. A one-mile-loop interpretive trail provides a good introduction to the Chinle Formation and its badlands topography and petrified wood.
The Tepees—symmetrical, cone-shaped hills—are visible from the pullout.
Newspaper Rock displays an impressive collection of ancient petroglyphs across the face of a huge sandstone boulder. The drawings have not been interpreted, but they seem to represent animals and spiritual figures. Bring binoculars to better examine the artwork or use the free telescopes.
At Puerco Pueblo, you can see the foundations of a one-story pueblo with about 100 rooms and a kiva built around a rectangular plaza. Before A.D. 1100, local Native Americans lived in small scattered settlements. The building of larger pueblos, such as Puerco, indicates a change to an agricultural lifestyle requiring greater pooling of efforts. The broad, meandering Puerco River provided reliable water all year, and its flood plain had rich soil for farming. The river also attracted birds, pronghorn, and other game. Archaeologists believe that this site was occupied between 1250 and 1400. The last occupants appear to have packed up and left peaceably, perhaps over a period of years.
Many fine petroglyphs cover the boulders below the village. Though more scattered, they're comparable with the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock. One of the Puerco petroglyphs marks the summer solstice. About 14 other sites with solar markings have been discovered in the park. Help protect the site by remaining on the trail.
The Puerco River, which you cross on a bridge north of the pueblo, was far different when Native Americans lived here. Records indicate that cottonwood trees grew along the floodplain as late as the 19th century. Ranchers took advantage of the abundant grasslands in the late 1880s, but drought in 1891–94 dried up the grass, and gross overstocking destroyed the range. Runoff carried high concentrations of salts into the river, killing less salt-resistant plants. Floods have taken their toll, scouring and widening the river and leaving loads of silt in their wake. Now the river is dry much of the year.
The railroad tracks that you cross on the bridge are a reminder of how the Petrified Forest first gained national attention. Early travelers disembarked at the nearby Adamana Station, now abandoned, to visit the “trees-turned-to-stone.”
If you're coming from the south, Lacey Point Overlook is the first of a series of Painted Desert viewpoints.
Whipple Point Overlook commemorates one of the first white people to visit the Petrified Forest—Lieutenant A.W. Whipple, who arrived in 1853.
At Nizhoni Point Overlook, the hillside below may appear to be covered with shards of glass. These are natural pieces of selenite gypsum, a very soft mineral you can scratch with your fingernail.
Pintado Point Overlook sits atop a volcanic lava flow, which covers the entire rim and protects the underlying softer Chinle Formation from erosion.
Chinde Point Overlook and Picnic Area has restrooms in the summer months.
Herbert Lore built the original Painted Desert Inn with Native American labor and local materials in 1924. Travelers bumping their way across Arizona on Route 66 stopped for meals and shopped for Native American crafts. After the National Park Service bought the inn and surrounding land in 1936, Civilian Conservation Corps workers rebuilt and enlarged the structure in a pueblo style. It served as a park concession and information station, but the six sleeping rooms were not used after WW II. Hopi artist Fred Kabotie painted the murals in the 1940s. Also look for the carved beams, hand-made furniture, metal lamps, and decorated skylights created by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Head downstairs to see the old bar room; continue outside and around to the left to peer into the cozy rooms, which still have their washbasins and corner fireplaces. The inn closed when the Painted Desert Visitor Center opened in 1962, and the old building faced demolition, but people recognized its unique Southwestern architecture—a mixture of Spanish and Native American pueblo styles—and saved it.
Now a national historic landmark restored to its 1940s appearance, Painted Desert Inn contains rotating historical and cultural exhibits. A bookstore sells regional books, posters, and crafts. Open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily with extended hours possible in summer.
Kachina Point Overlook and the trailhead for Painted Desert Wilderness (Onyx Bridge, Black Forest, etc.) are behind the inn. You can follow the easy Rim Trail between here and Tawa Point Overlook 0.6 mile one way.
Tawa Point Overlook offers a Painted Desert panorama and a trailhead for the Rim Trail to Kachina Point.
Tiponi Point Overlook is your last (or first) overlook of the Painted Desert on the drive.
Painted Desert Visitor Center and North Entrance Station mark the north end of the drive near I-40 Exit 311. A 20-minute movie, shown on the hour and half-hour, illustrates the park's features and describes the formation of petrified wood. A few exhibits have plant and animal fossils. Staff will answer your questions and issue backcountry permits. Fred Harvey Painted Desert Oasis has a cafeteria, curio shop, and gas station.
On to Snowflake and Taylor