If you’ve ever wondered if a national park with cluttered petrified wood exists, it does and it’s right here in Petrified Forest National Park. Petrified Forest National Park is a 28-mile long imposing park that, honestly, is one of my favorite national parks. It’s underrated than most national parks we hear about, but coming from a geological and historical nerd and if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably get a good kick out of exploring it.
What is petrified wood, by the way? Because not going to lie before I came to this national park, I was confused about what it was. Petrified wood is basically wood or a log that became fossilized from the process of permineralization, where minerals take place of the organic material, and in this instance, the wood. Petrified wood had been preserved under the circumstances of sediment or ash covering it and the organic material lacked oxygen, thus revealing colorful elements like crystals. Not all petrified wood can count how long it has been around, but some do come with growth rings that have made scientists determine that.
Petrified Forest National Park is situated in the counties of Navajo and Apache. It is spectacular with a variety of nature to discover: badlands, colorful petrified wood with embedded stones that go beyond MILLIONS of years ago, and fossils that go back from the Late Triassic Period. It’s a world wonder park because it contains a lot of fossils and this gives you an idea of how glorious Arizona is known for its geological and archaeological histories, making this state a top west coast destination to travel to.
A drive to each different area within the park will catch your eyes on the fossilized beauty that was left there and that will continue to be preserved for the following generations to come. Untouched beauty, Petrified Forest is the largest place to find petrified wood.
A little history on Petrified Forest National Park
This park was located right on the edge and equator of Pangea, the supercontinent that theorizes on how all the continents were once joint together during the Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras. Back when Pangea was there, the weather was not the dry we know of now in Petrified Forest, it was humid and sub-tropical. Mountains once took place and rivers did too. Trees were living here in the rainforest, streams were flowing, and trees, plants, and living creatures were alive here. Those creatures included reptiles.
According to How Stuff Works, scientists have come to the belief that dinosaurs actually used to roam here too through the forests that had tall conifer trees. Petrified Forest National had been around for more than 225 MILLION years. The climate had gone through changes and so did the life that existed out there and eventually, their end came to being buried from layers of sediment. Nature’s actions tormented the vegetation and the life we knew here from either extreme flooding or lava flowing. Ash had pushed down trees and became covered by ash.
These trees and their wood were all buried and as wind and rain came crashing down, over time, it had exposed these sediments to create what we presently see in Petrified Forest National Park: petrified wood, also known as the star of the park. These precious petrified wood are filled with colorful stones that just glisten and the wood’s textures are sublime. Later on this post, I will show you where you can find them in the park.
Activities to do in the national park
Petrified Forest has many things that a visitor can do. Depending on how long you’re staying in it, you can find yourself doing these activities in a day or more. If you’re just going to explore the park by crossing by the areas where you can witness the geological formations, you may not have time to do the recreation activities.
- Sightseeing / photographing sights
- Backcountry camping
- Driving by
For more information on where you can do these and the policies behind doing these, I recommend calling the National Park Service’s office for Petrified Forest National Park or visiting the visitor center to talk upfront to a ranger for advice. I always recommend to everyone visiting national parks to take a quick look stop at a visitor center because sometimes they have free museums, short demos and tours, and souvenirs.
A superstitious legend in Petrified Forest National Park
When you first enter the park with your car and you go by the admission gate, a park ranger will probably tell you, “please do not pick up and take home any petrified wood.” That’s what my family and I were told as we arrived there. First off, it would leave a trace to the preserved areas of the national park, which not touching anything that was there before is a common ethical practice to always keep in mind: leave no trace to sustain the natural lands, which is emphasized in the nonprofit organization Leave No Trace.
Second, something about these petrified wood you’ll find in the park seems tempting to pick up and take it with you as if something coming from its glorious natural beauty will gravitate you towards it. It’s so pretty after all with its fossilized wood that just makes you wonder, “A wood this hard that existed from millions of years ago with this pristine look? Enticing.” But, is there more to this warning beside the possibility of getting in trouble with the park since it’s illegal and can result in a fine?
Well, yes there is. There’s a presumed curse that is roaming around the park and much evidence comes from stories of people. According to Legends of America, some visitors stole some petrified wood from the park and reported it to the park after their weird occurrences of dealing with bad luck. They say that this curse still exists until today.
In fact, the national park holds a room with hundreds of people who have confessed to stealing wood from there and shared their scary stories. Some of these stories, according to Legends of America again, were related to getting “divorce, to being jailed, medical conditions to car problems, unemployment to generally terrible lives, and even death”. Now that list just screams SOS (save our souls).
People who dealt with these fateful problems would then feel obligated to return the wood with notes and letters explaining what bad luck they have received and would ask the park officials to put them back to where they were taken from. But even then, it might be too late. These rocks cannot be put exactly where they were because it was moved out of their righteous spots that would have been valued for scientific study. This phenomenon is hard and weird to understand. What is causing this? Is it a consequence that is spiritually attached to these petrified wood if you steal them? We’ll never be sure, but do not do it.
Places to explore in Petrified Forest National Park
The park can be explored in one day if you arrive early. All of these areas are driveable and connect to a road overlapping on a highway on a bridge. Here are the areas I explored and what to discover in them:
Painted Desert Overlooks
Painted Desert consists of orange and scarlet colored badlands with lighter colored stripes. This multi-hued landscape can be seen in a lot of different angles around the park (they stretch out that long!) and they are eye-catching. Painted Desert stretches for 160 miles and the colors range from gray and lavender too. This used to be a forest where its sediments were formed from erosion, silica, and water.
Painted Desert Inn
Painted Desert Inn was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program during 1933-1942 where unemployed and unmarried men were provided with jobs when it was difficult for them during the Great Depression. The original building used to be an inn in the 1920s and it was covered in all petrified wood. The inn served as a tourist attraction ran by Herbert Lore and he decided he’d sell the property in hopes of having it preserved and protected, according to National Park Service. This now Pueblo Revival styled property was bought by National Park Service in 1935.
Upon coming inside the Inn while you’re visiting it, you will be impressed to think it’s a current running inn but everything is a mock-up of how it would’ve looked back in the day from a bar, restaurant, a lounge area, and a reservation desk.
Blue Mesa and driving through The Tepees
When you drive through a couple of points, your eyes might notice gray, purple, and brown striped cone-shaped hills. These are badlands of mudstone that reside in this area called Blue Mesa in the park. There are many drive pull-outs (like the rest of the park has) to get a scenic picture-taking moment. These iconic cone-shaped hills in the park are erosion formations called the Chinle Formation, which is mainly river deposits.
One of the most fascinating areas to discover petroglyph evidence is right here in Newspaper Rock in Petrified Forest National Park. It displays more than 650 petroglyphs, where some of them are over 2,000 years old! These petroglyphs all hang around a small area and are inscribed onto huge boulders. It’s said that Puebloan people were living here and are the ones who created these petroglyphs with their active presence along the Puerco River, a source of drainage that bisects the park and was a reliable source of water for crops.
It’s hard to tell what’s exactly on these rocks, but there are different interpretations that may mean they’re spiritual symbols, symbols for family, calendar markings, and/or territory routes.
Rainbow Forest Museum and Giant Logs Trail
This interactive museum is a must-stop if you want to receive more information on what you’re finding along the park. There are a plethora of fossils displayed behind its glass of skeletons (of dinosaurs, other reptiles, and extinct plants) and the museum sets aside space for a bookstore to check out some cool gifts. There are also displays of HUGE glossed petrified wood on display and a restroom break available for visitors. My favorite part of this museum? The backyard. Well, more like there is a 0.4 roundtrip trail connecting outside in the back of this museum where it’s littered with petrified wood called Giant Logs Trail.
The museum brings us back to a historical time when the construction of this building in 1931 became a headquarters for the park at the time. There wasn’t much to it at the time but it did receive noticeable visits like from Albert Einstein.
Explore this area and you’ll find a panoramic view of the largest collections of petrified wood cluttered over the grounds beside the badlands. There is also an off-the-beaten trail you can do around here, which we happened to do if you want to see a real close-up of these beauties. Take a look at where they’re placed and be prepared to be in uttermost awe of the stones that formed into these logs.
Other places to explore in Petrified Forest National Park
Since we did not get all the time to explore the whole park within the day (hey, it always gives me a reason to look forward to the next visitation!), these are the other cool areas you can explore:
- Agate Bridge: You can find a 110-foot long petrified log bridge here!
- The Agate House: This was a partially re-constructed building where Puebloan people once lived in. It’s almost completely built of petrified wood and goes back to the year of 900!
- Route 66 Alignment: We saw this but did not stop to take photos. This used to be a section of where the original (and famously known) Route 66 was that intersects within the park. You can spot a 1932 Studebaker car here – what a really cool piece of history to go back into!
- Puerco Pueblo: We drove by this, but did not stop by! This part used to be home for Puebloan people and this may have housed around 200 people. There are also petroglyphs to find here, especially a cool one with a solar marker, where around two weeks around June 21, a ring of light passes right into the circular petroglyph.
- Crystal Forest: This is a trail where you can access rainbow-colored, crystal-glistening petrified wood through a badland landscape.
Taking a trip to Petrified Forest National Park will really blow your mind to how Arizona has preserved the ancient times. It surpasses the expectations of just a desert scenery with all the evident petrified wood and nature that bloomed through millions of years. If it’s on your list, I hope you’ll love the national park as much as I did.
Where to stay
A lot of places to stay at around the park are themed with dinosaurs (the Motel 6 in Holbrook we stayed at had iron sculpture dinosaurs by the pool area) and Route 66. A lot of stops are filled with these themes too, pretty cool. From what you can learn, Holbrook is one of the nearest cities to Petrified Forest National Park. And if you are staying overnight, I also recommend you take the next day to explore the Meteor Crater since it’s along with the stop of the park (you can do either one first as my family did).
Here are some deals where you can find a place to stay at:
Elevation: 5,340 ft to 6,230 ft
Area: 229.6 mi²
Declared as national park: 1962
Closest city/city location: Holbrook
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Great pictures! We were just there this summer, it looks like we did a lot of the same trails as you! 🙂
Thanks M.B. Henry! That’s so cool! I went back in October. Hope you enjoyed it.