I’ll admit it. When we set out to visit all 58 of United State’s National Parks there were certain parks that we weren’t motivated to visit. Petrified Forest National Park outside of Holbrook Arizona was one of those parks. I’m not sure why that is. Certainly Petrified Forest is popular. In 2010 the records state that 664,725 visitors crossed into the park. Petrified Forest is 25th out of the 58th National Parks in attendance. But I’ve seen petrified trees before many times. They are cool but how many can you look at? How interesting could it be to look at a park full of them?
Nevertheless, a mission is a mission. We were destined to visit Petrified Forest National Park. In the park we would see the legendary trees. How can you miss them? We’d also find that there is more to Petrified Forest National Park than its fossilized trees.
Reaching Petrified Forest National Park required a mild detour from our Southwest loop. For a period, it looked like we might have to miss the park altogether. The Federal budget debate threatened a shut down of all National Parks. Only at the last moment did we learn that the parks would stay open.
Our next obstacle was the weather. Outside of Albuquerque on I-40 strong winds blasted the rig. It blew so hard that the bikes on the truck’s roof were threatening to escape from their racks. It took a thirty-minute stop and an array of ropes and every knot in Becky’s arsenal to securely lash the bikes to the roof.
Further on the sideways snow came. Yet we were lucky. The snow wasn’t sticking to the highway. A few degrees cooler and we would have been forced to hunker down off the road for the night. Somehow everything had fallen into place by the time we pulled the Airstream into Holbrook Arizona. The park would be open. The weather was clearing. We would be able to visit Petrified Forest National Park.
The next day we woke to a crust of snow on the car and trailer. It was one last reminder of the previous day’s storm. In the bright sun of the warming day, the snow quickly melted and it was time to visit the park. Petrified Forest made our 14th National Park visit since our quest began. Yikes, there are 44 parks left. This venture will take some time.
It’s hardly a surprise; petrified trees are the attraction at Petrified Forest National Park. Amazingly, the parks stone trees were once threatened. At the turn of the twentieth century railroad cars full of petrified wood were regularly being removed from the area where the modern day park now sits. If the fossilized wood removal had continued unabated, this unique landscape strewn with petrified trees would have been lost. With the aid of new legislation, Theodore Roosevelt intervened. Evoking the Antiquities Act, Roosevelt in 1906 established Petrified Forest as one of the first National Monuments. The fossil trees were now afforded Federal protection. Though the tree looting did not end, it did slow.
In 1962 Congress upgraded Petrified Forest from a National Monument to a National Park. Special procedures are now in place at Petrified Forest to protect the trees. Unlike most National Parks, the gates close at night. A ranger in a booth at the exit interviews departing visitors about rocks they might have become particularly attached to during their visit. Even with these efforts it is estimated that 12 tons of petrified wood is looted from the park each year.
Still there is plenty of petrified wood remaining in the park. The rock trees cluster in the highest density near the southern border of the park. Nevertheless, it is a leap to call this a “forest” unless a swath of clear-cut trees counts as woodland. Few if any petrified trees stand as they grew. Most of the rock logs look like they have been neatly sawed into disks and are ready to be split into stone firewood. It doesn’t seem that Petrified Forest National Park is quite the right name for this place. Yet I imagine that had the name been “Petrified Clear Cut National Park” far fewer motorists cruising down I-40 would stop in for a visit.
There’s more appeal to Petrified Forest National Park than fossilized trees. Indeed, for us, the park’s true charm is its badlands. After all, plenty of petrified wood can be seen in natural history museums. And if that’s not good enough, passersby on I-40 can acquire petrified logs in the shops that border the park. Petrified Forest’s intensely colorful badlands can’t be put in the trunk and taken home.
Two badland areas in Petrified Forest National Park stand out. Blue Mesa’s wasteland shows off the best of the vibrant eroded hills. A lollypop loop path takes visitors amongst the rounded hills striated with purple and blue bands. At the northern end of the park, the Painted Desert presents another dramatic landscape. Painted Deserts badlands are tinted with intense pink and red.
It took us a little more than a half a day to tour this National Park. Typical visitors spend about two hours in the park. What we saw surprised us. In the end Petrified Forest might not be the best of the National Parks, but it is worth a stop. For sure it is worth a sightseeing break while cruising through Northern Arizona on I-40.
More pictures can be found on Picasa.