I recall at about 5th grade I first saw pictures of the Petrified Forest. I thought that the idea that trees could become rocks was fascinating. I vaguely recall Grandma Violet and Grandpa Dick talking about visiting the Petrified Forest. I thought that traveling to such a place was fascinating. Forty years later, between Christopher’s and Nick’s graduations, we drove through the Petrified Forest National Park with Sue and Charlie. Two years later, I am still fascinated to see rocks from trees, so we are back with Emily.
The Petrified Forest is near the eastern range of the Painted Desert, which follows a crescent of stratified mudstone and stand stone from edge of the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border. Winslow and Holbrook Arizona are cities within an hour’s drive. Otherwise, the countryside is wide horizons, rolling desert and mesas.
The park runs north-south, with about a 25 miles drive and a dozen pull offs, each with an overlook or short (one mile) pathway around points of interest. The northern section has views of the Painted Desert and the southern section petrified wood. In the middle are the ruins of an Indian dwelling site and numerous petroglyphs. Stop at each pull off and spend some time admiring scenery which does not look like home. Plan to spend a full day along the way. Take water & a picnic.
The park has visitors centers at each entrance. Both are worth a stop. The northern visitor’s center has a film about (theories of) the origins of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. The southern visitors center has displays of artifacts of petrified wood from the park and around the world, fossils, etc. The T-shirts and puzzles are good quality too, for souvenir hunters. If you want to take a slice of petrified wood home in your suit case, there is a store across the parking lot. (Do not pick up any in the park — they ask on the way out.) It is rather dignified, as a National Park should be. I preferred the kitschy style rock shops outside of Holbrook myself. Rock shops should have a degree of tackiness. We are not talking Greenwich Village art galleries here! Though I think that polished petrified wood, and miner formations of any sort, rival any abstract expressionist painting or sculpture.
Arriving after mid-night at the rock shop with the RV, did not keep us in bed long. Linda was trying to figure out how to run the hot-pot to make our first round of coffee. Having lived in the RV for about 12 hours now, we were not yet familiar with how to get the electricity to work, and we did not want to disturb those other two RV’s who many have arrived at a reasonable hour. The refrigerator had worked, keeping our groceries and most importantly milk cool. With the coffee figured out and our cereal eaten, we pulled away to enter the Petrified Forest a 7:30 (5/18/11).
The day was cool (50F?) and the wind blowing about 30 mph across the high plateau. My first attempt at a photo revealed that the batteries, which I had charged at the hotel in Reno, had failed. Just inside the southern end of the park is a visitor’s center with two walks and a souvenir shop, which would not open until 9:30. No batteries and hundreds of pieces of petrified wood waiting to be documented or composed into artistic abstractions. Linda and Emily were more concerned that the women’s bathroom was “under repair” and the alternative suggestion was in the souvenir shop, which would not open for 2 hours.
We took the walk behind the visitor’s center as the clouds blew by. We viewed the interpretive video. The women’s room re-opened. We did some shopping in the visitor’s center T-shirt and bookstore. The ranger was thrilled to give us discounts, and a free refrigerator magnet, because tomorrow they would have to do inventory. The souvenir shop had opened. With new batteries in the camera, we headed out for the second walk. The wind, carrying sandy particles, appeared to blow at our faces regardless of which way we walked.
We started with the Petrified Forest walks. Though much of the stones trees were hauled away before the park as formed, the ground is still scattered with full sized tree trunks, mostly or partly buried in the muddy Chinle Formation soil, to logs fractured as the clay washes out from underneath them, to fragments from the weathering. The theory behind the wood’s preservation in rock form is that sub-tropical wetlands contained fallen trees, which became submerged in oxygen-poor marshes. Volcanic action buried the wood (the Chinle Formation is made up of dozens of feet of volcanic ash). The ash contains high levels of silica, which rain leaches into the wood fibers, replacing the organic mater with minerals and quartz crystals. The brilliant colors of the wood come from iron (yellow, orange and reds), and magnesium (purple, blue and green). This process goes on around the world, including the volcanic eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in our lifetime, which blew down and buried forests in ash. Scientist some day may find these logs turned to stone.
While evidence of human habitation occurs throughout the park, the largest pueblo is along the Puerco River wash. Remains of block-houses form a courtyard area. Petroglyph adorn the darkened sides of boulders which has fallen from the mesa. Bring binoculars for viewing the images, which are off the edges of cliffs.
The Painted Desert formed from the erosion of the Chinle Formation after the overlaying layers of shale and sandstone washed away. Some sections still have the harder rock layers capping the softer slopes. Other section form cone shaped mounds of grey, purple, pink and red, depending on which mineral dominate the clay. Most of the views are from the top of the cliffs. One walk takes you into the Blue Mesa valley of this desert form, where you can
look at the clay slopes from only a few feet away, and from the bottom of the valley, where rubble from petrified wood has slowly crashed. By the time we got to this region, the clouds were beginning to open and the wind was raging at 40 mph. We held onto Emily, but were unsure whether we provided her or us security against the wind.
Our final stop was the Desert Inn, which was built high on the mesa over looking a panorama of the Painted
Desert. The Inn, now a museum and gift shop, has murals capturing the feel of the desert and Native American tribes from this region. The sun was now out, turning a spot light on the reds and yellows of the desert, while we saw blue thundershowers on the horizon. You can take a hike into the desert, but with the now 50 mph winds (Sue & Charlie, remember trying to walk to the overlooks at the Meteor Crater two years ago?). We decided to head to our camping site in Homol’ovi State Park, near Winslow, AZ. By the end of the day, Linda and I had downloaded over 200 hundred photos to sort out for our i-book of the trip. I had used up both sets of batteries which I had purchased at the gift shop. And, this is just first day in the RV?