I had an interesting preconception / misconception about Petrified Forest National Monument. We had been talking about visiting for a couple of years, but it’s in an out of the way place and there’s no camping, so it just didn’t seem to happen. This year our route north from New Mexico was going to take us very near the park so I did a little internet research to find a place to camp nearby. I visited several forums looking for info and came away with the impressions that many people see it as a quick stop with a couple of interesting things to look at, and that’s about all. Hmmm! I did find a place to camp, a gift shop right at the entrance to the park, “The Crystal Forest” gift shop, has a free campground. How unusual, but oh so nice, so we figured we’d give the park a look. (we love free camping).
Fortunately my preconception was entirely false, the park is wonderful and I recommend it to anyone who is willing to walk a bit and open their minds and eyes to a unique natural wonder. Now it is true that petrified wood can be found in all 50 states, we ourselves found a small petrified forest in Yellowstone NP a few years ago, but nowhere on earth has such a concentration of petrified wood artifacts as this park. This is in spite of many, many, years of rampant collecting before the park was adequately protected.
Here’s the process. 225 million years ago some trees were felled, quite a few trees actually, maybe from a volcanic eruption like Mt St. Helens a few years back. Many of these trees floated downstream to calmer waters, gradually became waterlogged, and sank; to be covered by 100s, maybe 1000s of feet of silicon rich volcanic ash. The sediment cut off Oxygen and prevented decay of the wood. Over many eons the silicon migrated into the wood and replaced the organic materials of the wood turning each cell into quartz.
Quartz often contains impurities which give it color. Manganeses for dark purple & blue, carbon for black, Iron for red, Chromium for yellow, and many others. Cyrstal inclusions are often found in gaps in the wood.
There are 13 extinct species of conifer represented at the park, and one deciduous tree closely related to Ginko. Several of the softwood species are antecedents of the Giant Sequoias, although the largest of the park trees were only about 200 feet tall. The biggest log we saw was maybe 4 feet in diameter. By comparison we saw logs in yellowstone that were 6 feet or more in diameter. This Petrified Wood is much more colorful, and there’s a lot more of it.
At the Blue Mesa, halfway along the 30 mile park road, the topography of the park changes into a badlands type landscape similar to The Badlands in South Dakota or Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota. Hills of Bentonite (a soft clay like rock) are eroding away and exposing yet more petrified wood.
There’s a one mile loop trail that winds through the hills along the mesa top. Unlike the northern badlands, these badlands are colorful and many of the same minerals present in the petrified wood turn the hills pink, gray and blue. Blue Mesa is on the fringe of the Painted Desert.
As we traveled north, we found less petrified wood, but entered into the Painted Desert area of the park. The Painted Desert, only a small portion of which is protected by the National Park, stretches south from Utah to areas east of the park. Here, the bentonite hills exhibit even more color from pale to deep greens, blues and grays, and rich vibrant reds and pinks. Often chunks of petrified wood or sparkling crystals coat the eroding hillsides.
After almost 2 days exploring this “Quick Stop” of a National Park we made a final stop at the Painted Desert Inn
The Inn was originally built around 1920 though it never successfully functioned as a lodge, but as a lunch counter where travelers could get meals, or a cold beer in the downstairs taproom. In the 1930s the CCC restored and enlarged the inn and it reopened for business, again mainly as a lunch room, after World War II. In 1963, due to structural damage, the inn moved to a new building near the southern visitor center and the old building was scheduled for demolition.
After much wrangling a public campaign to “Save The Painted Desert Inn” succeeded, and in 1975 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1987 the Inn was declared a National Historic Landmark and the Park Service restored it to it’s present condition. Today it functions as a small bookstore and public attraction.
There are some fine murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie that alone make the visit worthwhile and I couldn’t help but wish the taproom still functioned.
I know someone will ask so here’s a little petrified wood factoid: You probably noticed that many of the logs look like they have been sawn apart with a chainsaw, and the log ends often have smooth, flat surfaces. Why? After the wood turned to stone it was buried deep within the earth for millions of years. The movement of the earth at times exerted immense pressure on the brittle unyielding logs, snapping them like glass rods. (They are essentially glass after all.)
Next stop: One from the bucket list – Canyon de Chelly National Monument.