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The badlands of the Painted Desert spread across the northern portion of the park, while trees that have turned to stone—trees that once shaded dinosaurs—lie tumbled amid the gnawed hills and hoodoos of the southern half. Welcome to Triassic Park.

Never has the toppling of a forest ended in such colorful elegance. Sheltering the largest concentration of petrified wood on the planet, Petrified Forest National Park delivers scenic and scientific wonders in equal measure. The plant and animal fossils unearthed tell the story of a time when the world was young.

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Blue Mesa’s layers of rock chronicle millions of years of history

Did You Know?

Petrified wood is the official state fossil of Arizona.

Forest to fossil

Imagine if the landscape were the exact opposite of what it is today. Instead of high, dry grasslands, picture a humid forested basin slashed by winding rivers and streams—such was the terrain of northeastern Arizona 200 million years ago during the Late Triassic epoch. In this subtropical lowland, crocodilelike reptiles, giant amphibians, and small dinosaurs roamed among towering conifers and leafy ferns. As the trees died, they washed into swamps and were buried beneath mud and volcanic ash. Entombed in the sediment layer known as the Chinle Formation, the wood absorbed silica from minerals in the groundwater. Over time, these crystallized within the wood’s cellular structure, forming a stonelike material.

Human history at Petrified Forest is but a blink of an eye in geological terms, yet it, too, is fascinating, The first people here 10,000 years ago were nomadic hunter-gatherers who later settled in agricultural villages. They left behind petroglyphs, pottery, and dwellings, such as the 100-room Puerco Pueblo from 1250.


Petrified Wood

The array of colors found in petrified wood is caused by the presence of different minerals, such as manganese, iron, and copper.

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Take the trail

The best way to take in these wonders is via the 28-mile (45-km) scenic drive that cuts north to south through the park. The drive connects highlights, from roadside vistas to historic sites to hiking trails. Don’t miss Blue Mesa, a short loop road skirting a dazzling display of badlands. Some of the best examples of petrified logs can be seen along the three-quarter-mile (1.2-km) Crystal Forest Trail. Combine the trails to Long Logs and Agate House (2.6 miles/ 4.2 km) to explore a collection of fallen trees, as well as a pueblo of petrified wood. The intrepid will want to explore the backcountry of Petrified Forest on trail-less routes. Some are relatively easy, such as Martha’s Butte. Others, like the journey to fossil-rich Red Basin Clam Beds, require navigation skills.

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Prime your camera before and after sunset for “golden hour” and “blue hour.”

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