Go for the Fossils. Stay for the Scenery.
Of all the places we’ve visited in our more than two years of continuous travel, Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park has to be the most under-sold. We arrived there expecting to see 225 million year old wood. What we found were some of the most magnificent badland vistas of our trip.
That’s not to say Petrified Forest doesn’t live up to its namesake, too. It does. The place is lousy with fossilized trees. And unlike other fossils, these aren’t impressions of once living creatures in stone. These once living organisms are stone.
Long ago, buried beneath a layer of ash, the cells of these felled trees gradually filled with dissolved silica. Over time those minerals solidified into quartz crystal, creating rock in place of the tree. Traces of iron oxide and other substances give these fossils remarkable colors that the plants never knew in life. It’s truly amazing and beautiful stuff.
But what we enjoyed most about Petrified Forest is its surrounding badlands (not to mention a solar eclipse ordered up just for our visit). While not as large as Badlands National Park in South Dakota, we found incredible diversity in this bite-sized park. Our favorite area is reached by a single mile loop trail. The climb down into the Blue Mesa valley is a little steep but well worth the effort.
A short drive away, the blue bentonite clay hills disappear into the rolling red velvet carpet of the Painted Desert.
Within a four-hour drive from Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest gets a mere one-seventh of the visitors of its better known sibling. Maybe if they changed the name to something equally fitting, like Rainbow Vistas National Park, it would draw more interest.
While we’re happy to have wonderful places like this mostly to ourselves, folks who venture all the way out here to see the Canyon should schedule some time to see this very special park as well.