On a quiet day in the desert of Arizona, traipsing among the vast spread of logs and tree trunks that time has turned to stone and emblazoned with color, having the feeling of entering a land before time is inevitable. While there's nothing scary about Petrified Forest National Park, there is certainly something mysterious and wondrous. Perhaps it's the mystery of how this sea of petrified wood was created, or imagining the enormous reptiles that once grazed across this land - some weighing up to 2 tons! Regardless of the means, capturing the magic of the park is simple, by way of trails wind through the park in a maze of colored stone, natural log bridges and sprawling vistas.
The largest logs in the park can be found in the Giant Forest Area, where "Old Faithful" - at 9' wide, the largest park log - can be found. Visitors searching for more than wood will be pleasantly surprised by the Painted Desert Area of the park, where the topography changes to Badlands and the colored Blue Mesa Area and TeePee Land Formations are found. Also of interest are the Puerco Indian Ruins and Petroglyphs, dating back to 1000 A.D., and which appear to act as solar calendars.
The flora of the park is typical of a desert climate, rich with cacti, yucca and cottonwood trees. Sixteen varieties of lizards and snakes call the park home, and include the ubiquitous collared lizard and the western rattlesnake - the park's only poisonous snake. One unusual inhabitant of the park is the kangaroo rat, which drinks no water, instead gaining equal nutrition by digesting seeds in their cheek pouches. Visitors with keen eyes may even be privy to a pronghorn sighting - reaching speeds of 60 mph, it's the fastest mammal in North America.
The petrifying of trees began about 250 million years ago, when the ancient trees - similar to coniferous trees - first existed, and were knocked down, most likely by severe flooding. With the trees covered by water, sediment began to cover the trunks and minerals from the water seeped into the pores of the wood. Volcanic ash later fell on top of the sediments. Groundwater eventually dissolved the ash, which soaked through the wood, replacing the wood cells and solidifying into quartz. Over time, uplift and erosion created the landscape of petrified wood we see today.
Before exploring the sea of petrified wood and prehistoric rock carvings in the park, a trip to the Rainbow Forest Museum is in order. At the museum, visitors will be exposed to the telling of the Petrified Forest's history complete with fossilized bones and reconstructed skeletons of long extinct reptiles. One unusual exhibit features hundreds of pieces of petrified wood that have been stolen and returned (complete with apologetic notes) to the park. Beyond the museum area, the Long Logs Trail takes visitors to the Agate House, constructed by Indians in the 16th century using only petrified wood.
Where to Stay
The Wigwam Motel on famed Route 66 is 1950s Americana kitsch at its finest. Built in the 1950s, the motel is actually a semi-circle of enormous teepees born from lumber, chicken wire and stucco, swathed in neon lights and oozing the same lure they held 50 years ago, when the restless souls of America took to Route 66 in an endless series of pilgrimages. The teepees feature double beds, bathrooms, even TVs - but more importantly a taste of the heartbeat that once pulsed across America.
Nearby Sights/Side Trips
Too many travelers pass off Flagstaff, Ariz., as merely a place to sleep en route to the Grand Canyon. This means too many travelers have overlooked one of Arizona's quaintest gems. Flagstaff is a town full of life, thriving since its inception as a railroad town many decades ago. Today, the town features a bustling historic district, rich with artisans' galleries, classic Arizona mineral and rock shops and a delightful array of restaurants, bistros and breweries. The town is also home to a university that helps support a lively nightlife. The Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum, the Arboretum at Flagstaff and the Lowell Observatory will sate visitors on a quest for culture.