There are places that are so special that it is hard to imagine them until you have been there. In a desert landscape that has been shaped over millions of years by large floods, volcanic eruptions and a harsh climate, you will find Petrified Forest National Park. A rather unknown national park in Arizona that is not particularly well visited, despite the fact that it hides landscapes and experiences that are bordering on otherworldly.
Over 200 million years ago, Arizona was covered in tropical forests and active volcanoes. Over millions of years, violent volcanic eruptions took place in the area and finally the forests were covered by a thick layer of volcanic lava and ash. The giant trees were hidden and forgotten in the solidified lava for millions of years, before wind and water one day brought the forest to the surface again. Over the years, the trees had petrified and turned into colorful quartz. Like rainbows of history, captured in stone. One Petrified Forest – a petrified forest.
A few screeching jet-black ravens fly over the barren landscape, but we don't see any other animals during our visit. The heat of summer is difficult for most animals to thrive in. It was different at the time when dinosaurs roamed the fertile rainforest, over what is now a grassy desert. Many fossils of everything from extinct flowers to flying dinosaurs have been found here in the area. You will find the largest collection of fossils in the surrounding area Jasper Forest in the southern part of the park. There are masses of fossilized trees here, with trunks so large that it is difficult to take in their size from above. You need to hike down into the valley to really understand how big the trees used to grow here.
The logs are strewn across the landscape like giant sprinkles in a rainbow ice cream cone. There is really nothing left of the original wood in the fossils, every single piece of wood has been replaced by stone over the years, preserving the log exactly as it looked once upon a time. Different years and different weather have since brought different minerals into the process. The black color comes from coal, for example. Pink comes from magnesium. Green comes from copper. The brown-red comes from iron oxide. A rainbow of colors in the petrified forest.
However, it is not only the beautiful fossils that attract visitors, but also the striped desert Painted Desert. Over the years, erosion and water have created layers in the bedrock that vary in everything from yellow to rust red and faint purple. The colors also vary from day to day, depending on the weather. Some days the colors are stronger than others. At Blue Mesa there is a short (2 km) circular walk that takes you down to the foot of the striped hills, in the middle of a cauldron of heat and colors. An intense hike not to be missed. This landscape is so unique. So special. Maybe this is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen?
But the national park is not all petrified trees and striped desert. Here are also the ruins after Puerco Pueblo, an 800-year-old residence with over 100 rooms (!) where over 200 people lived at most. Corn was grown here and people and goods were transported between the villages along the Puerco River. At Newspaper Rock you will find petroglyphs that are even older. Over 650 images of people, animals and symbols are carved into the stones. Some images are narrative and easy to understand - like a newspaper - others are a little more imaginative.
Another stop in the park not to be missed is The Tepees. Here a collection of peaked hills stand in a row and the colors of the desert and the layers of the earth are shown at their best. The hills are right next to the park's main trail, so you can't miss them.
For those who also like modern history, you should stop by the place there Route 66 once upon a time crossed the national park. Here stands a proud Studebaker from 1932, rusting in the sunshine. A modern fossil, although these days it is also from a bygone era.
How do I get to the Petrified Forest?
Petrified Forest is a national park in eastern Arizona, 35 miles northeast of Phoenix. The nearest smaller town is Holbrook. To visit the national park, you need to plan your days well and stay in motels nearby, as the distances are long. Just driving here from the Grand Canyon is 35 miles.
Expect to need a day in the park, because the sights are many and there are many places where you can stop and take short hikes.
There are more petrified forests in the United States and in the world (including in Australia), but the Petrified Forest in Arizona is the largest.
Map (opens in Google Maps)
Where can I read more about the national park?
- National Park Service's official page about Petrified Forest
- Petrified forest national park on Visit Arizona's site.
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Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.