Photograph by Jack Dykinga/Getty Images
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Most of the Petrified Forest National Park's petrified wood comes from tall conifers. These ancient trees grew more than 200 million years ago along waterways, where periodic flooding uprooted trees.

Photograph by Jack Dykinga/Getty Images

See the Enchanting, Ancient Forest in the Middle of a Desert

Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park is a can't-miss destination for those looking for otherworldly landscapes.

Location: Arizona
December 9, 1962
135,000 acres

A sun-swept corner of the Painted Desert draws more than 600,000 visitors each year. While most come to see one of the world's largest concentrations of brilliantly colored petrified wood, many leave having glimpsed something more. The current 346 square miles of Petrified Forest open a window on an environment more than 200 million years old, one radically different from today's grassland.

Where you now see ravens soaring over a stark landscape, leathery-winged pterosaurs once glided over rivers teeming with armor-scaled fish and giant, spatula-headed amphibians. Nearby ran herds of some of the earliest dinosaurs. Scientists have identified several hundred species of fossil plants and animals in Petrified Forest.

The park consists of two main sections, and recent legislation has authorized doubling the land area to 218,533 acres. Located in the south are the major concentrations of the famous colorful petrified wood; in the north rise the colorful banded badlands of the Painted Desert. Giant fossilized logs, many of them fractured into cord-wood-size segments, lie scattered throughout, like headstones bearing a deceased's likeness.

Much of the quartz that replaced the wood tissue 200 million years ago is tinted in rainbow hues. Many visitors cannot resist taking rocks, despite strict regulations and stiff fines against removing any material. To see if the petrified wood was actually disappearing at an alarming rate, resource managers established survey plots with a specific number of pieces of wood; some were nearly barren in less than a week.

The problem is not new. Military survey parties passing through the region in the 1850s filled their saddlebags with the petrified wood. As word of these remarkable deposits spread, fossil logs were hauled off by the wagonload for tabletops, lamps, and mantels. In the 1890s gem collectors began dynamiting logs searching for amethyst and quartz crystals. To prevent further destruction of its unique bounty, the area was designated a national monument in 1906 and a national park more than a half century later.

How to Get There

If you are traveling west on I-40, exit into park. When leaving the south end of park, the road joins US 180. Follow US 180 for 19 miles to Holbrook and back to I-40. If you are traveling east on I-40, take the US 180 exit in Holbrook. The south entrance is 19 miles farther. After driving through the park, leave via I-40. Airport: Flagstaff. There is also a small airport in Holbrook.

When to Go

Year-round. Summer's dramatic thunderstorms enhance the beauty of the landscape. Fall, with its milder weather, also attracts many visitors. Winter on the Colorado Plateau can be cold with brief snowstorms, but moderate afternoon temperatures are not uncommon. The area blooms colorfully in spring; winds can be high.

How to Visit

Many of the features at Petrified Forest are on a scale best appreciated by leaving the car. Plan enough time to walk among the fossil logs and Painted Desert badlands. For a half-day visit, follow the park road from the Rainbow Forest Museum toward Pintado Point. If you can stay longer, include a walk to Agate House, take the trail into the Blue Mesa badlands, and consider a hike in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area.

Fun Fact

Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park site that contains a segment of the Historic Route 66 alignment.