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The Forest of Rocks and Flowers

 

Petrified National Forest in Arizona bursts with color and history, but not the tall trees you’d expect.

Petrified Forest National Park doesn’t look like a forest. Think rocks, mesas and breathtaking desert skies. But the legacy of trees standing millions of years ago remains, hardened into the landscape.

In ancient days, forests stood on the park’s land in what is now northeastern Arizona. As time passed and the climate changed, the trees fell and then fossilized, creating one of the world’s largest concentration of petrified wood. 

Each year, more than 600,000 visitors come to marvel at the rainbow of colors in the rock that has solidified in the bodies of the logs. Over the years, the mineral silica replaced most of the organic wood, and different hues in the crystals come from trace minerals like iron, manganese, carbon and chromium. 

The petrified trees concentrate in areas of the park like the Painted Desert, and they help form what looks and feels, in many places, much like an actual desert. The park is classified as grassland, however, and near the colorful logs grow wildflowers that compete with the fossilized trees for the most colorful feature. The flowers are most abundant in April and May, following the winter snow and rains. In late August, a second group of different flowers bloom.

Petrified Forest also offers a glimpse into the lives of earlier civilizations. Preserved petroglyphs on rocks throughout the park give evidence of calendars that marked events such as the summer solstice. Remnants of stone points, darts and other weapons used by hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era, as well as pottery from early pueblo farmers, have been found within the park.

To experience Petrified National Forest, the U.S. National Park Service recommends a two to three hour visit. The easiest way to enter is with a car—the park is right off Historic Route 66.

Visitors can drive to several key lookout points. A roadside turnout leads to a view of Jasper Forest, a collection of hundreds of petrified logs deposited in the area through the erosion of the surrounding rocks. Newspaper Rock offers another road stop—it earns its name from the hundreds of petroglyphs etched on its surface.  

Once inside the park, visitors can leave their cars behind and choose from several short hiking trails to see main attractions. Two of those trails include the Giant Logs Trail, a paved 640-meter path that winds past the park’s largest petrified log, and the Long Logs Trail, which runs 800 meters and features the park’s largest collection of petrified trees. 

George Willcoxon, a research student at the University of California, Berkeley, who drove through Petrified Forest during a cross-country trip from California to Washington, D.C., enjoyed the combination of riding and walking.

“My wife and I drove around the highway loop through the park, stopping at various scenic overlooks and rock formations to walk around and take pictures. The trees are quite interesting, and there are many canyons and rocks too. The desert landscape is unmatched, except perhaps by the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Badlands in the Dakotas,” Willcoxon says.

The forest has camping facilities for visitors with more time on their hands. But no matter the length of your stay, Willcoxon recommends stopping at the souvenir shops outside the park to take home a commemorative piece of the unique terrain.

“They sell polished stones, Native American artifacts, jewelry, sculptures and so forth, made out of local minerals and petrified wood,” he says. Removing petrified wood from the park is illegal; the shops obtain their wares from private landholders in the area.

Petrified Forest National Park is open year-round, though hours vary depending on the season. So, check the National Park Service website before you plan your travel. Tourist season peaks in the summer, but summer can also bring rain, lightning and dust storms. Winter comes with some snow and rain, but it tends to dry up quickly, giving way to crisp air and unlimited visibility. 

No matter the time of year, the trip will be memorable. Willcoxon does, however, offer one more tip for summer travel.

“Be sure your car has air conditioning and that you bring sunglasses, sunscreen and lots and lots of water. It’s hot!”

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.