The Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National park is always a fun surprise because there really is NO forest. We took the kids there, and like clockwork they got out of the car to exclaim, “where are the trees?”
“Look on the ground,” I’d reply. And, there, the rocks tell the tale. “Those are the trees. This was a forest about 200 million years ago. It’s now petrified!”
“Oh. huh.” Disappointment? Not quite. Avi was fascinated and really got into the place, which was fun to see. Zoe a bit less so; I think the bummer (and obviously good rule) about not being able to collect petrified wood from the park turned her a snidge sour.
Our first stop in the park was the Rainbow Museum at the southerly entrance. It was about 4pm when we arrived, and discovered that the park gates close at 6pm. I read into the phrasing to mean the gates close to people entering so I felt like we were in and could be a bit leisurely. Avi loves getting the badges from the National Park Ranger programs, so he grabbed a booklet and we started a hike right after a bit of learning at the museum.
The “Long Logs” trail was a cool introduction with lots of massive fossilized trees along the path’s loopy end. Avi needed to put his arms around one, measure a long one with his steps, and note any wildlife for his booklet. Getting the permission was all he needed, and he loved hypothesizing about how they broke apart. “Maybe it fell over in the mud, and then later it came up and slid down the hill. This part broke off and rolled over here.”
About 225 million years ago, during the late Triassic, this part of the western U.S. was located near the equator on the southwestern shores of the massive continent Pangaea. It obviously went through many changes, but was generally a wet area – covered by rivers, verging on swampland, an equatorial rainforest, and something like a mangrove all during different times.
The Chinle formation is the geological naming of the rocks formed during the most fluvial time when lots of rivers drained the interior mountains, depositing plenty of nice silt – and that is the key. When a tree fell, or when many were washed out with a flood like along our Long Logs trail, they were so quickly covered and sealed with sediment that they never rotted. Over the millennia, water and it’s minerals seeped in and slowly replaced and reacted with organic matter to fossilize the tree – to turn it to stone. The stone trees are often super colorful, too, which is all dependent on which types of minerals were in the water. Those same minerals also colored the mud they deposited, which gives us the Painted Desert.
We did rush our hike a bit so Avi had plenty of time to get his ranger badge, then we drove north along the single road that traverses the park. We stopped at a few pull outs along the way to admire a log bridging a little gully or a pretty view, and then took a side road loop to the “Blue Mesa” and a wonderful hike on the “Blue Forest Trail” which includes a lot of super intense warning signs about steepness that I think are quite overkill; one should be enough. But, the hike is really cool, and I highly recommend it. It is especially nice at 5:30pm when the park is nearly empty and the sun getting low.
We hiked down into the badlands landscape of the painted desert and stopped at various info boards to learn about the formations. It was really neat to spot the layer where petrified wood so obviously being erode. By now, both kids were into the fun of finding unique petrified pieces. We read the rules and concluded that it was OK to pick up and examine the fossil wood as long as we replaced it where we found it and stayed on the trail.
From there we drove further north and popped into the “Newspaper Rock” pullout to see a really neat ancient Native American petroglyph. The petroglyphs are carved into the patina of the stones lying halfway down a scree slope, so the park service put in an overlook with nice zooming telescopes. By now it was well past 6pm and a park service police came driving up to kindly tell us the park was closed – I guess it wasn’t just the entrance gate – and would we please skiddadle?
So, we drove north toward the exit and had to skip a visit to the official painted desert overlook, but we felt fine with that as the sun set and our bellies rumbled. The cop ‘escorted’ us out until we passed another pullout with a few other stragglers he needed to heard.
It is possible to stay overnight in the park, as a backcountry hiker only, so perhaps another trip will be in order as the temperatures cool. It would be fun and a little spooky to sleep at the petrified forest in the wilderness areas! Instead, we slept in a much less glamorous truck stop just down I-40.