Petrified Forest National Park

AZ Petrified Forest

Today, it’s the red rocks that impact the image people usually have on their mind about the American Southwest. One can barely imagine that here, where one now finds desert sceneries, the climate was tropically humid many million years ago. Petrified Forest National Park, founded in 1962, combines many of the things that make up the natural wonder of the Southwest: One of the world’s largest convergences of petrified trees, the so called petrified woods and a rocky landscape that doesn’t only shine in red but in countless more shades, which is why this area is called Painted Desert. The National Park is located in the eastern half of the state of Arizona, not far form the stateline to New Mexico. The nearest town is Holbrook. Petrified Forest is easily accessible via Interstate I-40. If travelling from Phoenix, it takes about 3.5 hours to get the by car, from Tucson it’s almost 5 hours via Highway 60

The National Park covers a total area of 884 kmē. There is a park road, about 45 kilometers long, which allows crossing the Park entirely by car or bike and passing several viewpoints along the way. The designated hiking trails are rather short and are often leading to locations where there are either Native petroglyphs or where there is a large-scale accumulation of petrified tree trunks. Other trails will guide you to further attractions of the Park, such as Puerco Pueblo. This is an ancient Indian residence consisting of about 100 individual rooms which has been inhabitted by the Puerco in the 13th and 14th centuries, before they moved on because the climate had changed unfavorably. There are also a number petroglyphs to be seen here, some of which have an astronomical meaning. Another place worth seeing in the Park, Agate House, demonstrates that the Native peoples that lived here not only used the fossil wood to make tools and arrowheads of it, but also as a building material. Agate House is a small pueblo with eight rooms that was constructed from petrified trees and in which a number of Indian artefacts have been found. It was reconstructed in the 1930s. The house can be reached via a hiking trail that is about one mile long.

The fossils in the National Park are petrifications of a now-extinct conifer species. The region in eastern Arizona where Petrified Forest National Park is located has been a tropical area some 200 million years ago. In rainy seasons, the trees of the tropical forest were uprooted and came to a stop in river beds, where they were covered by a layer of ash from volcanic eruptions in the area. The silicium dioxid contained in the ashes replaced the wood of the tree trunks and thus saved them from decay. Those locations that have several of these tree trunks, which are more than 225 million years old, are today called “forests”, but in fact the fossils found there usually didn’t grpw in these places but rather fell and just came to lie there. Apart from petrified plants, animal fossils have been found in the region as well.

The scientific significance of the fossils has not always been as evident as it is today. For tens of thousands of years, various Indian peoples inhabited the region, Anasazi and Sinagua being among those. When Spanish explorers came here in the 16th century, they did not make note pf the petrofocations; they only appeared in 1851, when an army captain reported those findings. In the 1890s, people assumed the shiny fossils would contain valuable gemstones and proceeded to dismantle the ancient tree trunks. This is the reason why a significant portion of the region’s total stock disappeared - in primeval times, it had been widely forested.

The second section of the National Park contains the so-called Painted Desert. In this part of the Arizonan desert, multiple types of rocks - sandstone, volcanoc ashes, clay slate and others - have sedimented in consecutive layers. The miscellaneous color shades in red, white and yellow together form a picture that looks as if the rocks have been painted. Even the early explorers who came here in the 16th century, spoke of the “painted desert” in their reports. The National Park contains only a section of the Painted Desert, another part can be found outside of park boundaries on the grounds of the Navajo reservation. Those who want to learn more about the colorful rocks will find a good information center in the Painted Desert Inn run by the National Park Service. Contrary to its name, the building does not offer any accommodation opportunities any longer, but hosts a museum and a collection of art relating to the Native history of the region. Originally, a farsighted entrepreneur had constructed a two-storey guesthouse here, the Stone Tree House, for which he used many of the petrified wood trunks as a building material. 

Apart from the petrified plants, the National Park is also home to living species, although their number is limited due to the harsh desert conditions. The grassland is especially important for the ecosystem. There are grasses and liches here, specifically on the northern sides of the rocks as well as a few species of wildflowers that add some more beautiful colors to the palette of the Painted Desert when they blossom. The park’s fauna is mostly active late in the day or at night to avoid the heat of the day. Some of these, for example the salamanders and toads living here, even stay invisible throughout the largest part of the year and only appear in the rainy season. In addition, there are some snake species and geckos in the National Park, many different bird species (some of which are migratory birds) and a large number of mammals including coyotes, prairie dogs, hedgehogs, a few lynx and badgers.

Petrified Forest National Park is open year-round but daily hours can vary according to season. At all times, the Park is open latest at 8 am. At the  Visitor Center, accessible directly from Interstate I-40, there is a small store, a gas station and a restaurant. Also, the events hosted and organized by the Park Rangers can be booked here including guided excursions, Native cultural performances or series of lectures. Additionally, the Visitors Center issues the free permits needed by guests who want to stay overnight. There are no campgrounds in the Park, but backcountry camping is possible by permit. Note: Taking away fossils from the National Park is strictly prohibited and will be severely punished upon detection.




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