Petrified Forest National Park

State: Arizona

Established: December 9, 1962

Area: 135,000 acres

History of Petrified Forest National Park:

Petrified Forest National Park contains one of the best Late Triassic fossil assemblages in the world. The forces of deposition and erosion have shaped this strangely beautiful landscape. The park also contains one of the best native grassland ecosystems in Arizona.

The Petrified Forest is known for its fossils, especially fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic, about 225 million years ago. The sediments containing the fossil logs are part of the widespread and colorful Chinle Formation, from which the Painted Desert gets its name. Beginning about 60 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau, of which the park is part, was pushed upward by tectonic forces and exposed to increased erosion. All of the park’s rock layers above the Chinle, except geologically recent ones found in parts of the park, have been removed by wind and water. In addition to petrified logs, fossils found in the park have included Late Triassic ferns, cycads, ginkgoes, and many other plants as well as fauna including giant reptiles called phytosaurs, large amphibians, and early dinosaurs. Paleontologists have been unearthing and studying the park’s fossils since the early 20th century.

The park’s earliest human inhabitants arrived at least 13,000 years ago. By about 2,000 years ago, they were growing corn in the area and shortly thereafter building pit houses in what would become the park. Later inhabitants built above-ground dwellings called pueblos. Although a changing climate caused the last of the park’s pueblos to be abandoned by about 1400 CE, more than 600 archeological sites, including petroglyphs, have been discovered in the park. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers visited the area, and by the mid-19th century a U.S. team had surveyed an east–west route through the area where the park is now located and noted the petrified wood. Later roads and a railway followed similar routes and gave rise to tourism and, before the park was protected, to large-scale removal of fossils. Theft of petrified wood remains a problem in the 21st century.

How to get to Petrified Forest National Park:

If you are traveling west on I-40, exit into park. When leaving the south end of the park, the road joins US 180. Follow US 180 for 19 miles to Holbrook and back to I-40. If you are traveling east on I-40, take the US 180 exit in Holbrook. The south entrance is 19 miles farther. After driving through the park, leave via I-40 airport: Flagstaff. There is also a small airport in Holbrook.

When to go to Petrified Forest National Park:

Year-round. Summer’s dramatic thunderstorms enhance the beauty of the landscape. Fall, with its milder weather, also attracts many visitors. Winter on the Colorado Plateau can be cold with brief snowstorms, but moderate afternoon temperatures are not uncommon. The area blooms colorfully in spring; winds can be high.

Hiking trails in Petrified Forest National Park:

Painted Desert Rim Trail

Length: 1 mile round trip

Trailheads: Tawa Point and Kachina Point

Description:This unpaved trail winds through the rim woodland, a place for chance encounters of many species of plants and animals and spectacular views of the Painted Desert. Even though this trail does not have stairs, the waterbars and dirt-gravel surface may make this trail unsuitable for strollers or mobility vehicles.

Puerco Pueblo

Length: 0.3 mile loop

Trailhead: Puerco Pueblo parking area

Description: At Puerco Pueblo, walk amidst the remains of a hundred room pueblo, occupied by the ancestral Puebloan people over 600 years ago. Petroglyphs can be viewed along the south end of the trail.This trail is paved and does not have stairs, making it suitable for strollers and various mobility equipment (power and manual).

Blue Mesa

Length: 1 mile loop, moderately strenuous

Trailhead: Blue Mesa sun shelter

Description: Descending from the mesa, this alternately paved and gravel trail loops among badland hills of bluish bentonite clay and petrified wood. Plant fossils, including delicate ferns, have been found in the sedimentary layers of Blue Mesa. The top portion of this trail may be negotiated by strollers and various mobility equipment (power and manual). The trail then drop very steeply to its lower portion.

Crystal Forest

Length: 0.75 mile loop

Trailhead: Crystal Forest parking area

Description: Despite more than a century of collecting, beautiful crystals still hide in the colorful petrified logs at Crystal Forest. This paved trail may be negotiated with strollers, although there are a few steep hills. Mobility equipment may be used to access the shade shelter with assistance, but are not recommended on the loop due to narrow width and steep sections. There are no stairs.

Giant Logs

Length: 0.4 mile loop

Location: Behind Rainbow Forest Museum

Description: Logs features some of the largest and most colorful logs in the park. „Old Faithful“, at the top of the trail, is almost ten feet wide at the base!
This paved trail has several sets of stairs and may not be suitable for strollers or mobility equipment.

Off the Beaten Path:

Jasper Forest

If you want to take a nice stroll through an incredible garden of petrified wood, consider walking 2.5 miles round trip along the old 1930’s road into Jasper Forest-what was originally called First Forest because it was the first collection of petrified wood encountered by train passengers travelling by wagon from the Adamana station one hundred years ago. The road was added for car traffic later. The road is mostly eroded away now but if you look carefully, you can still follow it in most places. Park in the Jasper Forest parking lot instead of parking along the side of the road.

Along the way you will see:

  • One of the largest deposits of petrified wood in the park, the Jasper Forest. These petrified log segments were originally encased in the sandstone bluffs above the road, but thousands of years of erosion have sent them tumbling down into the valley.
  • This gravel road was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the mid-1930s. The road was closed in November of 1965 and replaced by the upper road to the present parking lot and overlook. You can still see many of the original stone culverts lining the old roadbed.
  • The end of the road looped around a geological feature called Eagle Nest Rock. Unfortunately the feature fell in January 1941 after a period of unusually heavy rains. However, you can still see the base in the center of the loop.

Billings Gap Overlook

This hike is just under 3 miles round-trip, and takes you to a great viewpoint of the Billings Gap area and badlands north of Blue Mesa. The hike follows the steep edge of Blue Mesa offering views of the badlands to the north and the broad grassy valleys to the south. The deep blues, purples, and whites which color the badlands seems to shift throughout the day and with the season. The summer monsoons add a touch of green vegetation, and, after a summer storm, water streams across badlands. On the way back swing down to the south side of the mesa for a view into the steep sided amphitheater. You may also encounter remains of prehistoric structures and petrified wood flakes used as prehistoric tools in the dunes on the mesa top. Park at the fourth pullout of the Blue Mesa Loop Road.

Along the way you will see:

  • Vistas across the badlands to the Puerco River
  • Unique eroded sandstone bluffs of Billings Gap
  • Petrified wood eroding out of the mesa edges

Blue Forest Trail

This trail is for sure-footed, safety-conscious, experienced hikers wearing lug-soled boots.

The Blue Forest Trail was originally constructed between 1934 and 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corp, connecting the lower and upper Blue Mesa roads. Much of the trail and the lower road were closed in 1955, replaced by the Blue Mesa Loop Trail, and fell into disrepair. The Blue Forest Trail was initially intended for a general audience, but was re-established in 2013 for adventurous hikers only (see the Safety Notice). The trail connects the main park road at the Tepees to the paved Blue Mesa Trail, accessed from the Blue Mesa Loop Road, and is approximately 1.2 miles long. Elevation gain and loss is about 200′. It’s another 0.3 miles on the Blue Mesa Trail to get to a parking spot along the Blue Mesa Loop Road, if you have a shuttle.

The Blue Forest Trail winds through the colorful badlands country. It offers a new view at every turn, and both the foreground and background hold your interest at every step. It gives the hiker a bit of history, a lot of scenery, an intimate look at petrified wood as its being exposed, and, with a little help we’ll provide here, a geology lesson. In combining all these elements into a single trail, the Blue Forest Trail reveals the essence of Petrified Forest National Park.

Martha’s Butte

This hike is only about a mile one way and takes you to a petroglyph site and artifact scatter at the base of a feature called Martha’s Butte. There is a solar marker here sliced in half by the summer solstice sunrise. Other petroglyphs are also on boulders in the area. We don’t know the origin of the name or who Martha was. Park at the Dry Wash bridge just south of milepost 22 on the main park road—there is a small, unimproved place to park on the south side of the wash, off the northbound lane. The hike starts out heading north in Dry Wash—as the wash bends sharply east, exit the drainage and head northwest around the north side of the formation to your west. You’ll go up and down through little drainages as you continue northwest to the relatively small butte with petroglyphs and pottery sherds at the base of the next set of bluffs. If you go to the larger butte marked „5639“ on the topo map, you’ll see a large petrified log embedded in the clay hill. This was long thought to be a petrified stump still in place but was excavated in 1936 by park naturalist Myrl V. Walker and some CCC „boys“, revealing that it is actually a log portion at a steep angle. It’s known as „Walker’s Stump“.

 

Information sources:

Petrified Forest National Park Visitor Guide

Guide to National Parks of the United States

http://www.nps.gov/pefo/index.htm

Official website:

http://www.nps.gov/pefo/index.htm

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