Petrified Forest National Park Overview

Gorp.com
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One of the highlights of the variegated moonscape of the Four Corners region of the Southwest, Petrified Forest National Park protects the largest, most spectacular tract of petrified wood in the nation, as well as the barren, Technicolor dreamscape of the Painted Desert. A visit here offers a surreal departure into land rich in cultural, geologic, and spiritual history.

Millions of years ago, at a time when dinosaurs were still roaming the earth, the wood scattered across this mile-high desert of northeastern Arizona became petrified. What petrifies a forest? The short answer: Over time, water saturated with minerals infiltrates organic matter, eventually turning it to stone. A 27-mile scenic drive with more than 20 overlooks gives nearly a million visitors a year—most on their way to or from the Grand Canyon—a quick look at this fascinating landscape. But away from the roads are 93,533 acres of wilderness, with multicolored badlands, 225-million-year-old fossils, petroglyphs and ruined pueblos, and mesas offering up panoramic views of this strange landscape. Get out there and you'll almost certainly have it all to yourself—fewer than 1,000 people a year explore the Petrified Forest backcountry.

Hike without Trails
If you've never hiked cross-country through trailless wilderness before, Petrified Forest National Park is a good place to give it a go. There are obvious, recognizable landmarks like Pilot Rock and the psychedelic badlands of Devil's Playground, and the clear air and sparse vegetation make route finding a snap. If you're not up for cross-country hiking, though, a number of trails do exist, including the 1.2-mile Painted Desert Rim Trail, which courses through brightly colored red, blue, pink, and gray desert as well as vegetation flourishing in rich volcanic ash.

Sightsee with AC
Combine searing temperatures in summer and an inviting, 27-mile scenic drive that hits the park's highlights and you have all the excuses needed for sightseeing from behind a windshield. The park's main drag leads to eight rim overlooks that offer sweeping views of the Painted Desert. Plan pit stops at Kachina Point's museum, Chinde Point's picnic area, Puerco Indian Ruins' excavations, and Jasper Forest Overlook's terrific view of petrified logs.

Visit the Bluelands
The steep Blue Mesa Trail leads downward into a landscape brushed in blue. The blue badlands are banded, cone-shaped hills composed of soft, porous clay that has eroded into intricate patterns and miniature ravines. The bands of color—which come from a variety of metal oxides—represent different layers that were deposited when this region was underwater. Astute hikers will find plant and animal fossils, which are abundant at Blue Mesa; just don't remove or disturb what you find.

Tour a Petroglyph Gallery
Petroglyphs—figures and designs pecked into rock surfaces—were the leading media source of the park's early inhabitants. These figures and symbols were crafted to tell stories, record special events, or serve as a message post. Current research suggests that some petroglyphs are solar calendars that interact with sunlight and surrounding rocks to mark the passage of the seasons. If you visit the park near the summer solstice you can see a solar calendar work at Puerco Pueblo.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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