In mid-afternoon I was on the .75 mile Crystal Forest loop when I had a triple surprise. I had never been to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park before, and this trail contained the greatest concentration of multi-hued, crystal bearing logs I had yet seen. However, the Petrified Forest Guide I picked up at the Painted Desert Visitor Center was painfully honest in its description of this loop. “Despite more than a century of collecting,” it noted, “a few beautiful crystals hide in the petrified logs of Crystal Forest.” Previous visitors had literally stripped this area, so I was looking at rejects, crystalized wood that no one judged valuable or pretty enough to haul away. However, I was finding the trail and the rest of this National Park a 5 Compass experience. According to Park rangers, PFNP still contained the highest concentration of fossilized trees in the world.
The most visited National Park according to Ask.com is Great Smoky Mountains with almost 10 million annual visitors. Petrified Forest now attracts only 660,000. In the system since 1906, it was designated a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt 6 years before Arizona became a state to protect what was left of the petrified forest from huge crowds arriving on trains and with wagons who were stripping it of its fossilized stock. Upgraded to National Park in 1962 when John Kennedy was President, Petrified is still growing. That really surprised me.
In 2004 George Bush expanded it from about 93,000 acres to more than 218,000. The National Park Service would like to add huge ranches surrounding it, when funds become available, not so much for petrified wood but to support its new function. The fossilized landscape is now a major center for paleontological and geological research with prehistoric animals currently the thrust of ongoing scientific work. This was, after all, a tropical jungle in the late Triassic Period 223 million years ago and home to phytosaurs, metopasaurs, etc.
Joined with the Painted Desert, today’s Petrified Forest is not just about trees-turned-to-stone and scientific importance. On its 28 mile park road, Ruth and I saw a historic inn, evidence that Route 66 once passed through, pueblos, etc. In one amazing day we stopped at every attraction and were never disappointed. We hiked about 5 miles of trails leading to petroglyphs, blue rocks, and formations that reminded us a lot of both Australia’s Outback and Kimberley regions. The Teepees, for example, mirrored The Bungle Bungles.
It will take a couple of blogs to tell about all that’s surprising in this old yet new National Park.