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Grand Canyon Vacation
Grand Canyon Trip - Petrified Forest National Park

My 1999 trip to the Grand Canyon was carefully planned so that I could visit a couple of other places in the same region. The most important of these was Petrified Forest National Park.

Petrified Forest National Park is an incredibly fossil-rich section of the Chinle Formation located in eastern Arizona. It takes its name from the extraordinary amounts of petrified wood in the area, in all shapes and sizes from tiny fragments up to logs more than thirty feet long and four or five feet in diameter. It's thought that this area was once a semitropical swamp or bayou, where thousands of trees fell into stagnant, oxygen-poor waters and were buried in sediment before they could decay. The wood is exquisitely preserved, sometimes including even the trees' internal structure and growth rings.

I entered the Park at the South Entrance, and stopped at the Rainbow Forest Museum there. The museum is a nice little piece of work with a few fossils of animals that lived in the area at the time the forest was alive and growing, 225 million years ago. Outside the museum building is a short nature trail that wanders for about a quarter mile through a an impressive display of petrified wood of all shapes and sizes, from small chunks up to twenty-meter-long tree trunks.

Rainbow Museum nature trail

In the better specimens, the structure of the fossilized tree has been preserved in such precise detail that you can even see and count the tree's growth rings. At the same time, the replacement of organic material by mineral material has produced some exquisitely beautiful coloring.

End of a petrified log End of a petrified log

An end-on view of a well-preserved petrified log on the trail outside the Rainbow Forest Museum. This one fossilized in a way that produced a rainbow of reds and purples in the internal structure, which are vividly brought out by the hot, hard sunlight.

An angled view of a second petrified log. This one doesn't have as much of the red-purple coloring. Darker blues and browns, combined with softer, shadowed lighting, give it a very different appearance from the first log.

From the south entrance, the Park Drive stretches about twenty-five miles in a huge hook shape to the north entrance, in the Painted Desert. There are numerous pulloffs and overlooks all along the Park Drive. The first of these, only a little north of the museum, is Long Logs/Agate House. Agate House is an Amerind pueblo that was built completely of pieces of petrified wood. Long Logs is a half-mile trail that winds through a large open area almost carpeted with petrified wood.

Long Logs

Looking down on the Long Logs trail and the bluffs beyond. The only rocks in this picture are light-colored. All the dark-colored "rocks" are chunks of petrified wood.

While walking the Long Logs trail, I spied this little critter scurrying through the rather thin grass:

Whiptail Lizard

Identifying her proved to be a bit of a challenge. She's definitely a whiptail lizard (which is why I'm sure it's a her; the common Southwestern whiptails are parthenogenetic, meaning they're all female and they reproduce by laying unfertilized eggs that hatch into clones of the mother.), but the Southwestern whiptails vary so much in appearance and range that making a firm identification was difficult. My best guess is a Desert Grassland Whiptail, but that species isn't supposed to be in northern Arizona. Whatever her species, she's one of very few animals brave enough to make this parched landscape her home.

Traveling north along the Park Drive, you pass several other stops, on both the left and right. Jasper Forest features a scattering of petrified wood set against an example of Painted Desert badlands, which get more numerous and more impressive as you head north.

Jasper Forest

Jasper Forest used to have a lot more petrified wood, but it was almost cleaned out by souvenir hunters 'way back in the last century. Now the Park Service has a zero-tolerance policy on removing petrified wood from the Park: if you take even a sliver, you're subject to arrest and/or a fine that starts at $275 and goes up. There's really no reason to try to steal any wood anyway; many rock shops in the area sell legitimate pieces of petrified wood that were collected outside the park boundaries.

Somewhere along the road north of Jasper Forest, one sort of slides from the Petrified Forest into the Painted Desert.