This portion of the Chinle Formation has a great concentration of 225-million-year-old petrified wood. The surrounding region, the Painted Desert, has eroded red-hued volcanic rock called bentonite. There are also dinosaur fossils and over 350 Native American sites.
We drove the straight wide-open Interstate 40 east to Holbrook (you could smell the AZ forest fires off to the south even though you could not see them) and then 20 miles on Hwy 180 south to the southern entrance of Petrified Forest National Park, which is also connected to the Painted Desert and the Badlands along the 27 mile drive. Entering the park we drove past a giant gift store selling petrified wood and then got a picture at the park entrance sign. The park is a wide-open expanse of desert and steppe-like terrain. At the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor’s Center were many displays on the formation of petrified wood, fossilized bones and teeth of ancient animals, and a display of redemptive letters from people who stole wood from the park and later regretted it (it is bad luck). Because an estimated 25,000 pounds of petrified wood are stolen from the park every year, the NPS has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for visitors who remove even the smallest pieces.
Violators are subject to fines starting at $275 (it might be more now). If rangers suspect you of removing any wood or other resources, they may detain you and search your car. We were asked if we had removed anything as we departed the park, but were not checked (and we didn’t take any wood). Just outside the museum is the Giant Logs self-guided trail, an easy .4mi. stroll showing logs like Old Faithful (almost 10 feet long, 5 feet in diameter and 44 tons!)
Almost directly across the parking lot from the museum is another hike, the Long Logs trail, 0.6 mi. RT and has the largest concentration of wood in the park. This relatively flat, paved loop gives an idea of the immensity of the Araucarioxylon trees that grew in this area during the Triassic Period. Many of the longest logs, including one that measures 116 feet, lie alongside the trail on the north end of the loop. The different colored layers are caused by mineral deposits in the clay. Another hike, 1.5 mi. RT to 8-room Agate House, leads you to the ruins of a pueblo built from colorful agate, petrified wood; a pueblo that archaeologists believe was briefly occupied around a.d. 1100. Colorful bits of petrified wood dot the ground on the way to the pueblo, which sits atop a knoll overlooking a vast expanse of desert. Made from petrified wood and mortar, Agate House must have been one of the prettiest dwellings anywhere. We saw the unusual formations known as The Flattops, caused by the erosion of softer mineral deposits from beneath a harder and more erosion-resistant layer of sandstone. We walked the .75 mile Crystal Forest path, named for the beautiful amethyst and quartz crystals once found in the cracks of petrified logs. We also stopped at the Agate Bridge and saw a petrified log that forms a natural agate bridge. We drove by Jasper Forest Overlook, with logs having petrified roots, and descended the Blue Mesa to the floor beneath - some of the prettiest land in the park. The hillsides are streaked and blend where the clay has washed into drainages.
We next drove by the very interesting Teepees, eroded triangular sandstone and clay formations that look like sand paintings, colored by manganese, iron and other minerals in the soil. We skipped by Newspaper Rock, a dense concentration of petroglyphs left by generations of Native Americans, and also the nearby 100-room Puerco Pueblo, the park's largest archaeological site, containing the remains of homes built by the people who created the park's petroglyphs (This pueblo was probably built sometime around 1400 and has many petroglyphs on the backside). North of Puerco Pueblo, we crossed I-40 and entered the Painted Desert, named for vivid colors created by minerals dissolved in sandstone and clay soils that were deposited during different geologic periods. At Kachina Point, we ate peanut butter sandwiches and visited the Painted Desert Inn, a historic building that's currently being restored. The inn, built in 1924, is where you'll usually see Native American craftspeople giving demonstrations (we didn’t see any, but it was a nice gift store). The Painted Desert Rim Trail meanders along the Painted Desert rim between Kachina and Tawa points, with stunning views of the desert, where gray, pink, and red badlands stand out against the green grasses at their bases and a more interesting route leads down into the Painted Desert from behind the Painted Desert Inn, the Painted Desert Wilderness Trail, about 0.5 mi. one-way. After a brief visit at the PD VC, we got back on I-40 and headed east to Chambers and took a left on Hwy 191 north to Canyon de Chelley at Chinle.
We took the Blue Mesa trail to where pieces of petrified wood form capstones (like balanced rocks) over eroded clay soils. The paved loop trail descends steeply to the floor beneath the blue, gray, and white-striped badlands - some of the prettiest land in the park. At the bottom, the hillsides streak and blend where the clay has washed into drainages. Pretty cool.
The .75 mile Crystal Forest path is named for the beautiful amethyst and quartz crystals once found in the cracks of petrified logs. Several of the logs had clear embedded veins of quartz. In fact, concern over the removal of these crystals was what led to the protection of the Petrified Forest. It's hard not to wonder what this area looked like before the scavengers arrived. Worth a stop.
This is less of a trail and more of an easy walk. I didn't try it, but I bet this path could be easily navigated by people using walkers and canes. The petrified wood is quite interesting and plentiful in this area but the view of the overall landscape isn't that impressive. This is a nice first stop in the park.
This is our oldest sons favorite hike. The marker here is not even close and the map that we got from the NPS had an incorrect waypoint as well. The bad directions and the setting of the sun made for an incredible family adventure. We'll try to return and get a proper recording on this one.