If you are ever traveling through Arizona near Flagstaff, take a detour off I-40 through the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert. The main park road stretches for 28 miles with spurs and viewpoints along the way and a visitor center at each end. The drive itself is gorgeous. You can stop and hike a bit or just keep driving, but my advice is to take your time to enjoy the beauty and solitude.
The Petrified Forest National Park was initially designated a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, finally being upgraded to a National Park in 1962. Although its official area almost doubled in 2004, the fee-access area still covers about 110,000 acres or 170 square miles. The park draws its name from the fossilized trees prevalent in the area. The trees—nine different species now extinct—lived in the Late Triassic Period about 225 million years ago. It is amazing to see these ancient logs strewn along the hillsides while driving through the park.
The Visitor Center at the Petrified Forest National Park’s south entrance showcases the geological, historical and cultural past of this area. Displays share everything from dinosaur skeletons to native pictographs. A stroll through its garden shows some of the area fauna as well as examples of petrified wood. The wood’s many colors come from three minerals: pure quartz is white; manganese oxides form blue, purple, black and brown; and iron oxides provide hues from yellow to red to brown.
If you visit the park in the spring, you will probably see extensive wildflowers as well. They pop up along the route, adding color to the landscape. Three of my favorites are Indian Paint Brush, Apache Plume, and Poppies. Clouds always add dramatic impact to the vistas too. I love cloud shadows.
A typical drive through the Petrified Forest, entering at the south entrance and traveling northeast through the park, offers many spectacular views.
At the Petrified Forest National Park’s north entrance is the Painted Desert Visitor Center. The Painted Desert itself covers 93,500 acres, stretching east from the Grand Canyon. While most of the Painted Desert lies within the Navajo Nation, a portion is accessible within the Petrified Forest National Park. The colorful badland hills, flat-topped mesas, and sculpted buttes of the Painted Desert are primarily made up of the Chinle Formation, deposited over 200 million years ago. The area was given its name—El Disierto Pintado—by Spaniards who invaded the area.
The Arizona Leisure Vacation Guide posted this little video providing a big picture overview of the geological processes that created the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. The music that accompanies the photographic montage has been called irritating by several, so you might want to turn the volume down or off. Otherwise, its display is informative and offers some good photos.
I have visited this area several times—and each time is a bit different depending on time of year, general weather and time of day. Once—over 15 years ago—I enjoyed an afternoon visit there with Mom and Dad. I was picking them up in Flagstaff to bring them home to California after they were in an accident while on vacation—long story. They were fine. It was a nice afternoon. My memories of that day always come to mind when I visit the area—one of the reasons it is a favorite spot for me.
Do you have a favorite spot in Nature you like to visit often?