There are currently 9 National Parks within a 6 hour drive from me. After rafting the Grand Canyon, I had officially visited 2 of them. That’s a lot of exploring to do!
Closest to Flagstaff on that list is Petrified Forest National Park, so naturally the fist free weekend I had to myself I went to check it out!
Petrified Forest National Park is a stone’s throw from the old Route 66. Passing through the towns of Winslow and Holbrook that era is still at the surface. Old neon signs, tiny motels, and run down rest stops stand as reminders of a bygone time when America hit the road for its first cross-country road trip.
A mile inside the south Entrance was the first stop – the Rainbow Forest. Huge blocks of petrified trees were strewn all over the desert hills. Over millions of years purple, orange, silver, black, and bright white stones replaced the organic matter in these fallen trees once they were buried and exposed to mineral rich sediments. The Rainbow Forest trail weaved through cross sections of petrified logs, offering awesome views of the ancient giants.
I learned from materials in the visitor center that the petrified forest used to be a rainforest. 220 Million years ago, when the earth’s continents were still together in Pangea, eastern Arizona was apparently a lot closer to the equator. The petrified trees and fossil evidence in the park indicate that it was once a lush, fern-covered forest, run by giant Triassic, pre-crocodiles.
Traveling north through the park I was surrounded by a pretty bleak desert landscape. Even though it was desolate, the stratified cones and hills were strikingly beautiful. All along the route, petrified trees peppered the ground.
Farther north the landscape got even weirder. I stopped and hiked at Blue Mesa. It is aptly named. Chunky conglomerate mounds were tinted blue, purple, and silver. Hiking down into those hills felt like walking on the moon. It was completely other-worldly. Even there, petrified logs jutted out of the sandstone.
The north end of the park is a spectacular look at the Painted Desert. Bright vermillion streaked across the Arizona desert as the horizon extended north into Navajo country. The Painted Desert Inn stood as a lookout point on top of a crimson mesa. All the work on the Inn was done during the Great Depression by CCC workers, and it was an absolutely beautiful way to end my visit.
One thing I found really interesting is that PFNP is run through by I-40. The freeway is down in a valley, so the park features are not visible from the road. How many people drive by without knowing the crazy geology, history, and beauty that they’re passing?