Weekend Trip: Petrified Forest National Park

Weekend Trip: Petrified Forest National Park

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There’s no shortage of fabulous places to explore in Arizona. Just a few hours drive northeast from Phoenix, Petrified Forest National Park offers a sweeping panorama experience of natural wilderness. Petrified Forest is rich in geologic and human history, as well as one of the main research and discovery sites in the United States for paleontology. Including the gorgeous vistas of the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest is a great way to get away from it all.

Plan Before You Go

As with all travel this year, conditions are subject to change. Double check with the park for travel alerts and advisories and to learn more about conditions in the park. Unlike some other National Parks, Petrified Forest does not have official campsites and wilderness camping is temporarily suspended. The park is open to daytime visitors however, and camping and accommodations can be found outside the park. 

As with visiting any wilderness area, be sure you have a supply of food, water and gas before heading into the park. The main route through Petrified Forest takes around an hour to drive and passes through some of the striking variety of the landscapes. Several easy hikes exist as spurs off this main road for those on a day trip. Longer hikes and deeper access into wilderness areas is available as well, although no overnight visitors are currently allowed in the park.

A Prehistoric Past

The petrified wood that gives the park its name and provides a signature feature of the landscape is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to paleontology in the area. Around 2000 million years ago much of Arizona was covered in lakes and conifer forests. Over time, the ancient trees of the area have fallen and fossilized, turning to stone over the span of millions of years. Alongside the petrified wood that marks the landscape researchers have found a vast array of triassic reptile fossils, creating a record of prehistoric life in the region. 

It is illegal to remove petrified wood and other specimens and fossils from the park. In fact, there may be consequences to stealing petrified wood that lie beyond human understanding. A recent project about the Petrified Forest dived into a vast trove of petrified wood that has been returned to the park over the years because it brought bad fortune to the thief. While the tons of returned fossilized wood cannot be returned to the wilderness of the park, it does serve as a cautionary tale about leaving natural wonder where you find it. 

The Painted Desert

One of the most breathtaking sights in the Petrified Forest is its sweeping views of the Painted Desert, a region marked by undulating multicolored mudstone. The Painted Desert is not truly desert, although the landscape has a striking starkness to it, it is mostly designated as grassland and mountain basin environments, with greater annual snow and rainfall than true desert environs. 

The Painted Desert is on the north side of the park and can be most readily accessed off of Highway 40. Scenic overlooks provide fantastic views of the surrounding lands. 

Human Presence

The Petrified Forest may look sparse, but there is evidence of humans in the region dating back at least 13,000 years. Artifacts of ancestral Puebloan life from various eras are scattered across the landscape.  The Petrified Forest National Park highlights many eras of humans in the environment, from the area’s earliest occupants to the more recent midcentury history of historic Route 66.

The area known as Newspaper Rock located towards the north side of the Park is an impressive area of hundreds of petroglyphs carved into the faces of several boulders. The layered petroglyphs paint a picture of the lineage of ancestral Puebloan people in the region. Agate House recreates from remnants a petrified wood structure used as a single family home and accessible via a short trail.

The Petrified Forest National Park is easy to access as a driving experience or on foot. A variety of short loop trails provide a rich experience for the casual hiker and give you close access to some of the Park’s best features. Longer wilderness trails for the more experienced outdoor traveller let you convene with nature.

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