About 60 miles (96 km) east of Winslow is the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert. It contains plant and animal fossils from the late Triassic period, about 200,000,000 years ago. As you get close to the National Park, you start to see petrified wood near the road, along with several businesses selling all sizes of petrified wood you can legally purchase. It’s really amazing to see all of this outside of the park, but consider that the park only covers 20% of the petrified wood area.
There are fossils of dinosaurs, but it’s best known for the fossilized trees. Some of these trees are over 190 feet (58 meters) long. The Petrified Forest is very popular with tourists, and averages 645,000 visitors per year. Even with this many visitors, my wife and I found the crowd wasn’t a problem. The trail near the visitor center was the busiest, with other trails having fewer people or sometimes only us.
Most of the petrified trees consist of coniferous trees, tree ferns, and some gingkoes. It’s considered one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the world. The fossil bearing layer, the Chinle Formation, is about 1,968 feet (600 meters) thick. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any fossils, besides the trees, when we were on the trails. We did see Native American petroglyphs on some of the trails.
I’m used to seeing fossils in museums, but to walk among the trees and be able to touch them was a wonderful experience. Since the petrified logs are made of various minerals, many have a rainbow of colors. Some of the pieces even have patches of quartz crystal on them. Get close to the logs and you will see the rainbow of colors they possess.
There are several ways to explore the Petrified Forest. You can drive through the park, which is 28 miles (45 km) long. There are pullouts on the road where you can stop and take your time looking around and take pictures.
You can also hike the seven trails in the park. The shortest trail is 0.3 mile (0.5 km), while the longest trail is 2 miles (3.2 km). They vary in difficulty, and some are paved, but most are pretty easy. We went at our own pace, and were able to inspect and photograph the petrified trees, both close-up and from a distance. It’s always best to stay on the trail, but much of the petrified wood is just inches from the path. It was great, and I felt like I was part of a museum display.
In the summer it can easily be 90-100 degrees fahrenheit (32-38 celsius), if not hotter, and there is almost no shade. We were there at the end of September, and it was still close to 90 degrees fahrenheit (32 celsius). Even an easy trail in this heat can cause problems for some people. Bring plenty of drinking water, no matter what time of year you will be there.
For the more adventurous, you can do backcountry day-hikes and overnight hikes in the wilderness area. These hikes require a permit, which is free.
As you move farther north in the park you will see less petrified wood, and more of the colors of the Painted Desert.
Your first good look at these colors will be at the “Tepees.” There’s a pullout that you can use here to take some photographs. There are other pullouts in the Painted Desert that provide wide vistas for you to enjoy too.
As you go through the park, there are several spots I suggest you visit.
- Puerco Pueblo – This Native American site has the foundations of several rooms of the pueblo, which is over 600 years old. There are also petroglyphs here.
- Newspaper Rock – Here you will see over 650 petroglyphs on the sides of boulders. Free spotting scopes are available at the site.
- Blue Mesa – Hiking here will let you experience hiking in the badlands.
- Jasper Forest – This area has one of the largest accumulations of petrified wood in the entire park.
- Crystal Forest – Some of the petrified wood here has sections that are covered in quartz crystals.
- Long Logs – This trail has, yes, long petrified logs.
- Giant Logs – Is a trail with, yes, giant logs.
If you want to go on all the trails, I would suggest giving yourself at least two days to take it all in.
The Petrified Forest National Park gives visitors the chance to walk through various historical periods, and to see the remains of these times. We saw prehistoric petrified logs, Native American petroglyphs and buildings that settlers from the Wild West made out of pieces of petrified wood. You will find yourself walking through millions of years of Earth’s, and the West’s, history. It’s really an amazing place and well worth a visit.