April 20, 2008

Arizona’s Petrified Forest is a Surreal World

PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. -- Imagine the Greek goddess Medusa was real, not a myth, and that she visited an Arizona forest in the prehistoric past, turning many of the trees to stone with her magical gaze.

That fantasy land wouldn't be much different from what you actually see in northeastern Arizona today.

Petrified Forest National Park, about 100 miles east of Flagstaff off I-40, is centered around what is believed to be the world's largest concentrations of petrified wood, dating from some 225 million years ago.

And really, you get two parks in one, for here, too, are the spectacular, sculpted badlands of the Painted Desert. Add in examples of ancient Native American ruins and petroglyphs, factor in the relatively few visitors and you have a unique yet highly accessible place to explore.

Despite its proximity to a busy interstate highway, only some 600,000 people visit Petrified Forest each year, so solitude can be readily found -- especially in winter. (One-sixth of all annual visitors come in July alone.)

The park's backbone is a 28-mile paved road between I-40 and Arizona Highway 180 that winds through, or links to, the best the area has to offer. There are visitor centers on both ends of the sinuous park road, but many visitors like to approach from the south and reconnect with I-40 at the end of a day's tour.

That's what we did.

The Giant Logs Trail, an easy 0.3-mile paved path, is one of the "must-sees" -- the most popular location in the park, according to Hallie Larsen, a park ranger.

It is the premier opportunity to see petrified wood up close and in great numbers. Located at the southwest end of the park, just off Arizona 180 (the park's southern entryway), visitors can get acquainted with the park first through the adjacent Rainbow Forest Museum.

The largest petrified log in the park, "Old Faithful," is found along the Giants trail. Located at the trail's top, it is almost 10 feet wide. Unfortunately, the trail has several sets of stairs and is not handicap accessible.

But there are dozens of "logs" -- or portions thereof -- scattered on the hillside behind the museum: great chunks, knobby and striated, yet upon closer look they appear rather crystalline and, yes, rock-like. Many look like a California redwood has topped and broken into pieces.

Larsen said just a two- to three-hour visit to the park is average for most visitors, but that still allows them to see many of the highlights.

Though once indeed trees, petrified wood has been transformed by time and mineral saturation into quartz. And no, these logs were not cut, though they sometimes appear to have been so. The physical characteristics of cylindrical quartz cause it to break cleanly when stressed.

Why did so much petrified wood end up here? There was a large, prehistoric river system here, with large forests upstream. The mineralogical conditions of the groundwater were simply conducive to the petrification process.

Petrified wood is also extremely heavy -- on average petrified wood weighs about 150 pounds per cubic foot.

It is also very hard and rates between 7 and 8 on what is called Moh's Hardness Scale. (Thus, only topaz, ruby, sapphire and diamonds are harder.) Only a diamond-tipped saw can cut it.

This part of Arizona's high desert area was once a vast floodplain, with numerous streams, where large conifer trees grew. Silt, mud and volcanic ash buried the trees after they died and fell. A lack of oxygen underground meant the logs' decay was slowed, and silica-heavy groundwater replaced the original wood -- preserving the tree's structure as a petrified mirror of its former state, Some scientists believe the process of becoming petrified wood may have only taken about 100 years.

Petrified Forest's sinuous road winds through plains and arroyos, and among cliffs and strangely eroded badlands formations. Here's a sampling of what you'll see:

-- Agate House Trail: Northeast of the Rainbow Forest Museum, this trail leads to a pre-Columbian pueblo, partially reconstructed in the 1930s, composed of petrified wood.

"The Agate walk is quite interesting," Larsen said. "It's about a two-mile walk."

Agate House itself is an eight-room structure. Ancestral Puebloan people also used petrified wood for tools and building material.

-- The Crystal Forest: Another attractive stop, the Crystal Forest offers an 0.8-mile path through more petrified wood, featuring an array of colors, textures and shapes. The rolling, badlands-like hills on which the "forest" sits is mostly barren of vegetation, making the petrified trees stand out even more.

-- Agate Bridge: This impressively long log-like formation stretches across an arroyo -- a precarious situation that prompted early park managers to put a somewhat unsightly concrete bar underneath it in 1911 and again in 1917 for fear of collapse. A sign explains the phenomenon: "The stone log, harder than the sandstone around it, resisted erosion and remained suspended as the softer rock beneath it washed away."

-- Blue Mesa: A little farther afield, Blue Mesa is the least visited and most overlooked location in the park, Larsen said. "It's one of my favorite spots," she said. "Relatively few people go there."

The area is about a 10- to 15-minute side trip from the main road, but it offers gorgeous views of badlands, log falls and pedestal logs. It includes an optional one-mile strenuous walk. Blue Mesa will have new exhibits this year, Larsen said.

-- The Tepees. Some visitors may have their fill of petrified wood at this point of a visit. However, along the road are the "Tepees" -- colorful formations layered in gray, red and white that rise sharply above the landscape and are a photographer's delight.

-- Puerco Pueblo. Puerco Pueblo is a stabilized 100-room structure may have housed as many as 1,200 people between 1250 and 1380 A.D. The village's residents also inscribed interesting, even odd, petroglyphs on the sides of nearby stones. (One shows what appears to be a giant bird with what may be a human in its long beak.)

The river nearby provided water for the Puerco people, for animals and for farming -- corn, cotton, squash and beans, according to archaeologists.

-- Newspaper Rock. Just up the road, Arizona's Newspaper Rock is worth a visit since it overlooks an area with a striking number of petroglyphs: spirals, human shapes and stick figures, winged or feathered creatures -- more than 650 of them by one count. Spotting scopes make the viewing easier, for the boulders and cliff sides are fenced off and far below.

"People who farmed the Puerco River Valley 650 to 2,000 years ago pecked these petroglyphs onto the rocks, leaving a legacy etched in stone," a marker notes. In 1975 the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

-- The Painted Desert. On the north flank of I-40 lie the Painted Desert and the park's northern visitor center.

Five roadside viewpoints showcase the desert beyond, seemingly painted with a red-dominated palette. Chinde Point, directly above the Black Forest, is the centerpiece, but there are also eroded wonders to be seen at points such as Kachina (which also hosts the Painted Desert Inn Museum), Pintado, Nizhoni and Tiponi.

Again, placards offer insight into the area's history, including exploration by Lt. Amiel Whipple, surveying a potential railroad route in 1853, and Edward Fitzgerald Beale's work establishing I- 40's mid-19th-century precursor, the Beale Wagon Road. Other signs explain the area's bleak but beautiful geology, rumpled badlands eroded into hillocks, ridges and gullies.

Some visitors wait like to wait for the approach of sunset in the Painted Desert. Larsen isn't one of them. She believes that a few hours before sunset, as well the few hours after sunrise, offer the best views, when shadows don't obscure so much of the landscape.

Visitors who have little time for a full visit to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest can easily exit I-40 and spend a worthwhile half-hour or several hours here.

The park's northern section also preserves a section of historic Route 66 (complete with a rusting old car).

At an elevation of 5,600 feet above sea level, the area does receive snow in the winter.

Roads in the park were repaved during 2007, so they are at their best. However, rangers caution drivers to only go the posted speed limits. Some pronghorn sheep were struck and killed by a speeding car a few years ago.

"Animals here are wild," Larsen said. "Ravens are especially a concern. They may approach you, but do not feed them, just ignore them."

Larsen said scientific study of the ruins and petrified wood continues in the park.

"We've discovered more in the past five years than in the previous 80," she said, explaining some park pamphlets will have to be re-written because of new discoveries made.

Federal law prohibits the collection of removal of petrified wood in the park. However, rock shops in the surrounding area -- like the massive, warehouse-like Jim Gray's on Arizona 180, sell wood gathered from public and private lands outside the national park. At Gray's you'll find all manner of souvenirs, from small petrified- wood trinkets and stones to massive (and expensive) furniture, such as elegant coffee tables.

Lodging is available in Holbrook, about 25 miles away. There are no campgrounds in the park, but wilderness camping is permitted with a free permit from the visitors center.

Visitors coming from the east on I-40 should consider taking exit No. 285 in Holbrook and going southeast to Arizona 180 to the park's south entrance. The 28-mile road will then return them north to I- 40 at exit No. 311.