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Across the Continental Divide…Into Arizona

Across the Continental Divide…Into Arizona

“An enchanted spot…to stand on the glass of a gigantic kaleidoscope. Over whose sparkling surface the sun breaks in infinite rainbows.”
-Charles Lummis “Some Strange Corners of Our Country: A Forest of Agate”

Arizona State Fossil: Petrified Wood

Continuing the journey west, I decided to stay on I-40 and head on to Holbrook, AZ as a base to explore the Petrified Forest NP for a couple of days.

(yup, I know I am supposed to be meandering across country but, given the delayed start to the adventure, I needed to make up some lost time…needed solar panels installed in AZ and wanted to be out West to tour northern AZ and be within striking distance of the Rockies for when the weather warmed up)

I found the drive interesting…not boring at all as some often write about I-40…the landscape might be virtually treeless but it definitely is not featureless on this stretch. Colorful uplifts, black lava fields, and arroyos were in abundance and were only hint of what I would discover when I visited Petrified Forest National Park that is part of the “Colorado Plateau”.

In fact, some of the most famous geological parks are found on the Colorado Plateau, including Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, and Arches—just to name a few—a couple of which I had visited already. Each has its own character, and Petrified Forest would not be an exception.

This area, a prairie today, was a floodplain 225 million years ago and littered with fallen trees (and I am here to say they must have been like giant Sequoias from the looks of some of the fossils ) and periodic flooding buried the trees under silt. Over time, silica-laden flood waters filtered through the silt and petrified the wood. In turn, centuries of erosion revealed an absolutely astounding scene.

Some petrified logs found in the park measure over 190 feet.
Petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park is almost solid quartz, weighing in at 168 pounds per cubic foot. It’s so hard, you can only cut it with a diamond tipped saw.

The petrified-wood fragments are quite beautiful and many are infused with startlingly deep color. The park’s appeal is heightened by the stunning landscape of the Painted Desert, which changes hue as the sun shifts across the sky. The kaleidoscope of reds, pinks and oranges combined with the 225-million-year-old pieces of wood is a beautiful sight.

Erosion has sculpted and shaped intriguing landforms-The Tepees and Blue Mesa and others – each with a distinctive array of coloring.

The Park is essentially 2 segments –The north end is the Painted Desert area and the south is the land of petrified wood forests.

The painted desert area is where, standing on the edge of a vast badlands landscape, a Spanish explorer is rumored to have named the area “El Desierto Pintado” (The Painted Desert) because the hills looked like they were painted with the colors of the sunset.

The first few miles of the road wind along the rim of a mesa overlooking the Painted Desert, past 8 viewpoints of the rolling multicolored landscape with one short trail along the cliff edge. The patterns visible in the eroded soft sedimentary rocks are due mainly to hematite (red), limonite (yellow) and gypsum (white).

Beautiful any time of day, the colors are especially striking at sunset.

After the final overlook of the Painted Desert (Lacey Point), the road turns south into the petrified region and also reveals numerous archeological sites.

One ruin – Puerco Pueblo was originally a collection of 76 rooms and a kiva – just one of over 500 archaeological sites within the park. Another is found further south at Newspaper Rock, a sandstone outcrop bearing hundreds of petroglyphs dating from around 1000-1300 AD.

It was all amazing but a few of my favorite sites:

Long Logs- an area with one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the Park…the giant trees are scattered to the horizon. The area also has Agate House—a partial reconstruction of an Indian Pueblo built there almost 10 centuries ago with petrified wood—an 8 room pueblo that just glitters with the crystals in the wood.

Crystal Forest is aptly named as the wood is just full of stunning crystals in a number of colors.

The Blue Mesa –badlands and rock formations that have have beautiful shades of purple, blue, and red. Here you will find petrified wood and plant fossils (cool!) sprinkled throughout the trail.

The Painted Desert – looking at the Painted Desert as a whole is quite moving. I was able to watch an amazing sunset over the Painted Desert with its colorful concentrations of petrified wood and multi-hued badlands. The Arizona sky reflected shades of purple, red, orange as the sun set. Spectacular!

So, every time you look at a prairie that seemingly goes to the horizon, keep in mind that just beyond might lie a land filled with colorful treasures….

See you down the road…..

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jim Walker #

    Awesome images. I was here as a kid back in 1975. I must plan a return trip!

    May 10, 2012
    • Stephen #


      thanks for taking a look – glad you liked the images- yes–way past time to go back 🙂

      May 10, 2012

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