There are 59 National Parks in the United States. We have been to well over 40, but the Painted Desert is not one of them. Even though we both visited there in the 1960s, and we both once thought of the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest as two separate parks, they are not.
Located just west of the Arizona-New Mexico border along Interstate 40 (old U.S. Route 66), the Petrified Forest National Park lies within the Painted Desert. Most petrified trees are south of the road, however, so one tends to think of the two areas as two parks.
Wandering through nearly barren desert today, it is hard to imagine the lush green tropical rainforest near what was then the Earth’s equator. It was full of life during the Triassic Period 225 million years ago. There were a few small dinosaurs and huge ancient relatives of today’s crocodiles. Mammals had not yet evolved, however, and flowers were still 100 million years in the future.
Trees died and fell or were knocked down by storms. Some were carried by flood waters and buried in river sediments. Others were just covered by soil, rock and volcanic ash through the millennia. Continents moved. The region rose and fell. Water came and went. Area seas and river systems put down more layers of sediment.
Buried trees, other plants and animals left fossil impressions in the mud. In other cases, the mineral and silica rich water soaked bones and trees were gradually crystallized.
The climate changed. Wind and water eroded the area; grasslands formed among strange shaped hills and valleys. Red, blue and green layers contain about the same amounts of manganese and iron. The color differences came as the result of differing water table levels when the sediments were laid down. A fluctuating water table was more likely to create the rusty reds.
Pre-historic people moved into the area and left over 1000 archeological sites in the park. And then, as in other areas of the Southwest, they moved on.
European settlers moved in with their sheep and cattle in the late 1800s. Overgrazing destroyed the grasslands.
But throughout the area, especially south of today’s interstate, the brilliantly colored remains of the forest dotted the desert floor like gems. And tourists came.
In 1885, the Arizona Territorial Legislature petitioned Congress to protect the area. The Petrified Forest National Monument was created in 1906. It became a National Park in 1962.
Click on photos to enlarge.
Signs told people not to take souvenirs, but it was accepted that tons of petrified wood had been lost. Petrified wood available in the region’s souvenir shops seemed to back this claim. But studies in the last decade compared old photos to recent photos taken in the same place from the same angle and found there was little loss. People are better than the administrators thought, and today’s signs thank people for not taking the rock. Nonetheless, a few people can’t resist. When later they feel guilty and return the stone, it is placed in a small dump. Taken from its original location, it has lost its scientific value, and if put back on display in the desert might confuse future scientists.