What does the Petrified Forest National Park and Costa Rica have in common? At one time the land in northeastern Arizona was at the same latitude as current day Costa Rica and it was a tropical rain forest. What remains is preserved in one of America’s oldest parks, which was declared a national monument in 1906.
About 200 million years ago, during the Late Triassic Epoch, trees in this region died and fell into river. The waterlogged trees were covered in silt, sand, and volcanic ash. The minerals in the water, especially silica (quartz) seeped into the logs slowly replacing the wood fibers. Other minerals also found their way into the wood creating the vibrant colors found in the “trees” in this park. While there are many other places to find petrified wood, this park has the highest concentration in the world.
We started our exploration at the southern end of the park on the Giant Logs Trail. The mineral rich trees are now brittle and were once covered with large amounts of dirt. Under the stress of this weight the petrified trees broke apart much like a piece of chalk snaps in half under pressure. The landscape is littered with these pieces of a forest from millions of years past, which look like they were cut by machine.
There are other features of this trail including a tribute plaque to one of the fathers of the national park system, Stephen T. Mather. He was an avid outdoors man who became the agency’s first director. There is also a photo from 1931 of Dr. and Mrs. Albert Einstein in front of the famous big log called “Old Faithful.”
As we made our way through the park, there were plenty of places to stop and check out. We visited the Crystal Forest which features a path among numerous petrified trees and a badlands-like landscape. We also visited the Agate Bridge which has been a tourist attraction for over one hundred years.
Next was the Blue Mesa which turned out to be our favorite spot. The colors here are amazing and it can be viewed by hiking down a steep one mile trail. Surprisingly the trail is paved and offers up close views of the blue and purple landscape.
We also visited Newspaper Rock which has hundreds of petroglyphs etched in it. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to view these at eye-level and are confined to a viewing spot high above the rocks.
The north entrance to the park is adjacent to Interstate 40 and is also near an historic inn. The Painted Desert Inn is a national landmark and has wonderful vistas of the painted desert. This structure is another one of the hundreds of contributions to the national park service by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) in the 1930s. This adobe style building was refurbished by the CCC and is open for visitors. The foundation of the building is constructed of a most abundant local resource, petrified wood!
We weren’t sure that we wanted to leave the Mogollon Rim with its beautiful scenery and cool temperatures but, since we are heading north, we wanted to visit the Petrified Forest. We found that at the southern end of the park there is a gift shop that will allow you to camp for free, so it was a perfect spot for us. The gift shop itself is like a museum with a large collection of polished petrified wood, gems, and other items.
To be honest, I did not have high hopes for this stop. Fortunately, this turned out to be an enjoyable visit with plenty to see and do. Children may bore of this park quickly but the uniqueness and beauty of places like Blue Mesa provided for us a wonderful visit.
Next we head to a lesser known location, but one that has been highly recommended by friends, Canyon de Chelly.