A GUIDE FOR THE INDEPENDENT TRAVELER IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
"With the completion of the Interstate Freeway System, it became possible to travel all the way across the country, from coast-to-coast, and never see a thing...." Charles Kuralt
FORESTS TURNED TO STONE - PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA
It’s quiet here for a place where ugly-tempered creatures the size of a bus used to roam. Dry and open and dusty where it was once wet and forested and lush. No rivers run where once it would have been ill-advised to dangle your toe in the water because something that looked an awful lot like a crocodile might lunge up and eat it, or all of you, for that matter.
Actually, the only sounds besides the wind are made by tourists driving through this ancient place to ogle remains of that wetter, meaner time 225 million years ago.
This high, Arizona desert east of Holbrook was once a vast plain, flooded by many rivers and streams. There were no grasses at the time, no birds and no mammals, but it was still a very dangerous place! Crocodile-like reptiles; giant, fish-eating amphibians; and small dinosaurs lived amongst a variety of tall trees and huge ferns.
Over time, the tall trees fell and were washed by swollen streams into the flood plain.
Over 225 million years of sinking and rising and flooding and silting, a lot of these dead trees sank and were covered by enough stuff that oxygen was cut off and normal processes of decay never took place. Silica bearing waters seeped into and through the logs, gradually encasing the whole tree with silica deposits. The silica crystallized into mineral quartz and we had petrified trees.
The land rose, water drained away, climate dried and what wind and rain there was over a few million years exposed the trees in what is the world’s largest concentration of petrified wood. Also included in the park are the many-hued badlands of the Painted Desert.
For the casual visitor there is a scenic drive you can access from two different points. The most common is coming in off Interstate 40 at exit 311 and driving through portions of the Painted Desert south through Petrified Forest. There are a bunch of turnouts and overlooks and short hikes all along the way.
Throughout the park there are remains and ruins of a civilization that dates back more than 2,000 year, the Anasazi. About half-way into the drive is a large, 75- room site called Puerco Ruins. A paved walking path winds through the ruins. Look for a lot of petroglyphs carved on rocks below the ruins.
Be sure to visit Newspaper Rock, a really spectacular collection of ancient rock art which includes depictions of hands, deer, snakes, lizards, kachina masks and many others. This is an ancient art gallery that no modern man has been able to make any sense out of. What were they trying to say? Or were they trying to say anything, just doodling?
If you have more time, take some of the longer hikes out into the back country where there is some not-so-visited scenery well worth the effort.
Now it is a fact the ground is covered with what seems like a carpet of bits and pieces and chips of petrified wood. So, hey, let’s pick up a few of the pretty pieces, put them in our pockets and take them home. Where we’ll probably show them around to a few of our bored friends and then throw them away.
DON’T DO IT! If for no other reason, it’s against the law. But mainly, if everybody walks out with a few bits of petrified wood, it wouldn't take long before there wouldn’t be any bits left. Surprisingly, people also pick up larger pieces, sometimes pieces it takes two people to lift, and try to drive out with them. As you leave, you’ll be asked at the entrance gate if you’ve picked up any petrified wood. If the ranger senses you might have, you’ll be stopped and searched. Maybe arrested. Sure ruin a nice vacation. Don’t do it.
Besides, there seems to be a general consensus among petrified wood thieves that once you get the stuff home, it causes all sorts of bad luck. In a closed off area at the Rainbow Forest Museum there is a big pile of petrified wood that has been mailed back to the park, most with apologetic letters that tell of marriages gone bad, financial disasters, dead relatives, natural calamities, serious injuries and various evil, dark things that have happened because the person stole and took home the ancient wood.
If you need a piece of petrified wood, there are places along I-40 and in Holbrook that’ll sell you wood that was gathered legally and is just as pretty and interesting as the stuff in the park.
Petrified Forest stretches between Interstate 40 and Highway 180. Most visitors take exit 311 off I-40 east of Holbrook. You can return to I-40 the way you came in, or connect with highway 180 and go west back into Holbrook.
There are several acceptable motels in Holbrook, I usually stay at the Adobe Inn. Motels just off the freeway to the east tend to be a little pricey.
If you want a very nice lodging and dining experience, go back west to Winslow and stay at the restored Fred Harvey hotel, the La Posada. The restaurant there is an experience you will talk about for a long time. You MUST make reservations! Go here for their web site and here for a previous story.
For more info, go the park website here.