It is hard to imagine viewing something 225 million years old, but that is what you can do at the Petrified Forest National Park in northern Arizona, just east of Holbrook. Only two hours away from Payson, you can see one of the largest concentrations of colorful petrified wood and the multi-hued Painted Desert, along with some historic buildings and archaeological sites.
The Petrified Forest, which was set aside as a national monument in 1906, and expanded through the years, offers several easy walks that will take you off the main road into the beauty of the forest, which, according to the Petrified Forest Web site, is actually one of the largest areas of intact grasslands in the Southwest and is not a desert. The park contains the petrified remains of 225-million-year-old trees.
This area was once a vast floodplain crossed by many streams. At one time conifer trees grew easily along the banks of these streams where you could also find crocodile-like reptiles, giant amphibians and small dinosaurs among the ferns, plants and a variety of other animals.
About 60 million years ago this region was uplifted as the continents moved to their present condition. The climate changed and the former tropical environment became today’s grasslands.
Since then, water and wind have worn away the rock layers exposing the petrified wood, fossilized plants and animals and the weathering has left the Painted Desert’s soft rock visible.
The uplifting created the Chinle formation with the red hues found in the Painted Desert and the blue tones of the Blue Mesa region. There is an easy walk/hike through the Blue Mesa area, which lets you get up close to what was created those many years ago.
The petrified wood was created when trees such as Araucioxylon, Woodworthia and Schilderia fell and swollen streams washed them into adjacent floodplains, according to the Petrified Forest brochure. A mix of silt, mud and volcanic ash, which cut off oxygen and slowed down any decay, buried the trees.
Silica-laden groundwater seeped through the logs and replaced the original wood tissues with silica deposits. Eventually the silica crystallized into quartz and the logs were preserved as petrified wood.
Today you can find these petrified logs around the Holbrook area, with the largest concentrations in the Petrified Forest. There are a number of shops in Holbrook and at the entrance of the park which sell the nearly gem quality petrified wood remains.
The petrified wood contains amazing colorful patterns, which can be seen on a walk on the Long Logs Trail. There are hundreds of exposed petrified logs along this trail, which starts 50 yards from the south entrance visitor center. An extension of this trail takes you to the Agate House, which is a partially restored pueblo built of petrified wood. The Long Logs Trail, about 1.6 miles round trip, contains the park’s largest concentration of petrified wood.
If you are spending a half-day, try walking the Blue Mesa and Crystal Forest trails in addition to the Long Logs walk.
Another nice and easy walk to view the Painted Desert is the Painted Desert Rim Trail, which is located on the northern end of the park, near the I-40 entrance road. There are two visitors centers — one on the north side of the park and the other on the south side.
Park officials warn that picking up any petrified wood for a souvenir will bring heavy fines. A couple suspected of picking up some souvenirs were quickly stopped and searched this past week. Petrified wood souvenirs are available at several locations on the south side of the park.
Where: Petrified Forest National Park
Driving: From Payson, travel Highway 260 east to Heber, take 377 north to Holbrook, and then 180 south to the park. Highway 180 turns right off Highway 337 as you enter Holbrook. The entrance to the park is about 20 miles down the road.
Cost: Private vehicles, $10 for a seven-day pass. Annual pass is $20.
Operating hours: March 1 to May 9, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
May 10 to Sept. 7, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 to Oct. 24, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Oct. 25 to Dec. 31, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark museum and bookstore is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
What to do: Visit the museums and walk the many trails.
Special events: March is Arizona Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month: Programs, exhibits and activities throughout the month, and cultural demonstrations every Saturday at the park offer visitors insights into Arizona’s prehistoric and historic cultures.