It’s probably difficult to imagine, but hundreds of millions of years ago, Arizona was a tropical rainforest, rich in greenery and trees. Over time, the geology of the earth shifted and changed, and the region eventually became the Arizona we know today. Over the course of that time, stream and river deposits formed the Chinle Formation in what is known as the Painted Desert. Marked by colorful ombres of sedimentary rock formations, it is a sight to behold in the vast desert landscape.
For our only full day in Flagstaff on our Spring Break 2018 trek across the Southwest, we headed out to explore Petrified Forest National Park. There are two entrances to the park, the north entrance about 100 miles east of Flagstaff along Interstate 40. The south entrance is via Holbrook and US-180. Both entrances have a visitor center and gift shop.
Petrified Forest was another amazing park. The landscape born of volcanic activity, sediment deposits, and geologic uplift looked as if it truly were a desert scene of vibrant color painted on canvas. The Crystal Forest was my favorite stop. Here we found a ‘forest’ of petrified logs of varying colors and sizes, from small fossilized pieces to massive trunks. In addition to interesting geology, Petrified Forest has a human history that spans over 13,000 years. Puebloan peoples lived at the site from about 2000-650 years ago. This is evidenced by the many petroglyphs found at Newspaper Rock, an archaeological site along the road cutting through the park. In more recent history, Petrified Forest also contains a portion of Historic Route 66, well-traveled from 1926 through 1956, until I-40 opened and gave a faster route west (think Disney’s “Cars” movie). Petrified Forest is the only national park to preserve a portion of this historic route, marked by an old car in the roadbed.
It is about 28 miles from the Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north end of the park to the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south end. There are plenty of places to pull off and explore and take photos. Definitely stop at Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock for glimpses into what life looked like for Puebloan peoples those many years ago. The Blue Forest, Jasper Forest, and Crystal Forest had plenty of colorful petrified wood. And as you either enter the park from the south or leave if you’re heading southbound, be sure to check out Giant Logs. We didn’t have time to hike the 0.4-mile loop after getting our junior ranger badges (at that point I had a cranky camper in the backseat), but we could see a portion of the many petrified giant logs as we were leaving the Rainbow Forest Museum and heading out of the park.
Our visit to Petrified Forest was certainly a fun trek. The views were stunning, and the kids, as well as we adults, learned a lot about the unique geology and history of the national park and surrounding areas. It is located in a semi-arid environment, so the weather can be extreme. The weather was perfect for our April excursion- low 70s- but there was still a lot of sun. Sunscreen and hats are a must, as is plenty of water, and fuel enough to make the drive through the park with stops. And of course, we all got our junior ranger badges.
For more information check out the NPS site. Happy trails!
The info used in this post is from signage around the park as well as the guides we received on entry. These NPS guides are great sources of information about the national parks we visit.