PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
Have you ever asked yourself 'What happens when an awe inspiring natural wonder, hundreds of millions of years in the making, becomes a rest stop for vapid adults traversing the nation?' We have found the answer at Petrified Forest National Park.
This park was interesting for so many reasons. It seemed like this was most people's only National Park experience. Such a variety of groups had detoured to view the famous Southwestern stop, but I am not sure how many people actually enjoyed it.
This was our first full driving park. There were a few trails, and just recently, the park added access to the unpaved wilderness, but for the most part the highlights were intended to be enjoyed as a part of a drive across America.
As part of the historical Route 66, the road guiding us through Petrified Forest also showcased a few pieces from early automobile travel, including a history of the American road trip and the Painted Desert Inn. There were many international groups trying to recreate this experience themselves, either by car, RV, or most commonly, large motorcycle brigades. We enjoyed seeing families and friends taking in a bit of natural history along their 'epic American road trip' vacation. After talking with more people than we cared to (“can I be nosy?!”), we gathered that most adults were driving through to take pictures to share on Facebook without really giving a shit about what they were seeing. Baby boomers, they just can't put their phones down.
The real star of this park, of course, is the Petrified Forest. The attraction itself is not actually a forest in the traditional sense, rather it is composed of ancient logjams of coniferous trees that, over roughly 200 Million years, have fossilized. What this means practically is many of the hikes in the park take you through fields of what at first glance appear to be boulders, on second glace look like freshly sawed redwood trees inexplicably sitting in barren desert, and on a third, up close glance, turn out to be magnificent, multicolored, crystal filled gemstones wrapped in stone 'bark.'
Nowhere else in our experience has the near magical workings of geologic time truly come alive. This park was a great introduction to the geologic wonders we will be exposed to as we travel more through the Colorado Plateau, and showed us how difficult it will be to absorb information about the processes that have shaped our planet. Marveling at knots, burn scars, and insect burrows in the perfectly preserved stone, the prehistoric forests that towered in the middle of what is now desolate Arizona desert came alive for fleeting moments of comprehension.
We spent one whole day trying to understand time. It was pointless, exciting, calming, and confusing. Like I have said before, if I can see something I have never seen before, learn something new, and have an experience, I consider a National Park a success. This surpassed base expectations.
Every once in a while, a park will hit like a ton of bricks. This is either due to intense beauty, understanding, or hard-struck Nihilism due to both. Petrified forest hit me this way, but knocked Eric over. I don't think I have ever heard him lost in thought as much as this.
Neither Eric nor I have ever been affected by microscopic beauty, either. These petrified trees were an intricate, sparkling collection of minerals that took millions of years to form. The photos do not do it justice, as with most parks. At times, this park was flat out ugly, but the scale of time seeped in to every view and made it spectacular. Every pull-out had the typical informative sign, which helped to hammer in the actual length of over 200 million years, as much as our puny human brains could comprehend.
It was a very similar overload to the Very Large Array in New Mexico. We stopped at all the highlights throughout the park, but our favorite was the Jasper Forest, which we could hike down into, thanks to our handy dandy guide book which told us this (park signage wasn't great.) There, we got up close and personal with the giant crystals. A log is petrified when all of it's organic materials are replaced by minerals. This happened here by the trees dying approximately 216 million years ago, falling into a river, and becoming buried beneath layers of silt, mud, sand, and volcanic ash. These layers protected the tree from organic decay. Mineral laden ground water then percolated through the layers, carrying silica from the volcanic ash and other trace minerals, which saturated the dead wood. The silica (quartz) crystals slowly bonded with the cells of the tree replicating the organic material in perfect detail until there was no more organic matter left.
It was difficult to not just see logs, but giant crystals everywhere.
The painted desert is also a feature in this park, which showcases the striped layers of ancient topsoil. These mesas showing alternating strands of blue, purple, orange, red, and yellow represent the muddy floodplains deposited through time by river, ocean, and drought activity. Each layer exposed is younger than the lower ones, and the 'river beds' that are visible now range from 205 to 230 million years old. Just let that sink in.
We were one of the last ones to leave the park, as we watched sun set over these striated mesas. Our camp for the night was the parking lot of the Native American gift shop outside the park where we slept among Native American cultural icons that make Marty McFly's western wear look authentic. Thanks to the trailer, these free parking lot nights make it easy to enjoy one day excursions. Though there is still a since of “should we be here?” included in every one.
The next morning we stopped at a few missed sights in the park, and then headed back to Flagstaff. We were thankful we pushed our timeline up by one day, because there was a huge accident on the opposite side of the highway that had east bound traffic backed up for miles. We would have been stuck in that if we hadn't gone one day early. Instead, we headed back to our trusty Cracker Barrel for yet another night in a parking lot.
9/10 would walk through crystal forest again (docked a point due to the visitors.)
Song: Tougher than it is – Cake