Welcome to the most colorful article on this website: my drive through Petrified Forest National Park including its famous Painted Desert area. I have often used terms like “Venusian” and “other-worldly” to describe the many weird and wonderful things Masayo and I have seen on this trip to date, but I may have to retire such language after today.
Petrified Forest is the apex of strange.
Seeing Petrified Forest is very easy: it’s a long and narrow National Park that runs north-south; you exit from Interstate 40 and drive through the one main Park road, catching a highway back to the interstate. Viewpoints and side roads take you to some other areas, but mostly it’s pure simplicity.
And what you see is phenomenal. Our day began at the visitor center just off the interstate, and soon we were hiking along a one-mile trail along the rim of a cliff that overlooks part of the Painted Desert, which must be the most correctly named spot in North America.
Low, sharp hills with red bases and white crests are scattered among a brown and green flatland; metallic-looking copper greens and red ochers slide into one another over vast distances. It’s hard to keep your footing on the path because you keep gaping down below at what may as well be the planet Venus on an especially frothy day.
Heading through the Park brought scene after head-turning scene… but none of the petrified logs that give it its name. Those would come soon enough, for we turned onto a side road for something called Blue Mesa that, for me, became the highlight of the day.
In the Blue Mesa area are several overlooks that bring you closer to even more colorful and spectacular views, but it was the hike along a paved path into a steep canyon that really takes you to the end of the space ship journey.
Down inclines as much as 35% you hike, emerging in a bowl with colorful walls all around you. These multi-hued badlands at this bottom are not only shot through with mystical colors in the rocks all around but contain several sections of ancient trees, now petrified into hard rock but still looking exactly as they did millions of years ago when they were made of wood.
If I understand correctly, minerals got into the cells of the trees when they fell and became lodged in the bed of an ancient river. As different minerals replaced the tree cell by cell, the original shape was maintained but the rock version became multicolored. But, in a nice natural coincidence, mostly tree-brown. The heavy “trees” then broke apart and were washed onto the land, where they now sit.
Further south in the Park was the real petrified forest: acres of heavy brown rock “logs”, splashed with yellows, purples, and blues, stretched out on either side of the road. We tourists braved the chilly wind and even some rain drops to stand on exposed viewing platforms and behold the remarkable glimpse into a geological past hundreds of millions of years old. Right here in Arizona!
Other parts of the park were dedicated to human history, both older and recent: petroglyphs were visible on several rocks, including one especially cool depiction of the sun that was only fully lit by its heavenly muse on one certain day of the year, through the crack between two nearby boulders.
Also, America’s fabled Route 66 used to pass through the Park, and there was a small section off the road dedicated to that, consisting of an ancient rusted out car sitting amongst the desert shrubs near the modern vehicles flying by behind it on I-40, which continues its course right through the middle of the Park. (A railroad does too, and we saw several freight trains go by in the short time we were in sight of the tracks.)
At the south end of the Park we stopped by the other visitor center, took a short self-guided tour through a field of especially picturesque petrified trees, and continued on our way. Petrified Forest, in all its Venusian, Martian, other-worldly grandeur, is a spectacular place to go and unlike anything you could possibly have seen anywhere else.
What's the strangest geologic formation you've ever seen?
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“90% of visitors to the Grand Canyon only see the south rim. We saw both rims, and on the south rim I had a grouchy epiphany about high blood sugar: forget about it.”