Eastern Central Arizona is a dry desert climate. That is especially true along I-40 between Flagstaff and New Mexico. Can you imagine this area sustaining a subtropical forest? At one time in history, millions of years ago, it did. And, some of those trees are still around for us to see. You read that correctly. Some are still here. They are located in the Petrified Forest National Park.
Millions of years ago when these trees fell, many of them were covered by river sediments. This prevented decay. And, volcanic ash dissolved into the groundwater which provided silica to the log. As the two interacted with each other, the log slowly turned from an organic material and crystallized into one made of quartz. That is the process by which wood becomes petrified.
On our way from Utah to our new home base in New Mexico, we were passing by the Petrified Forest National Park and decided to dip in and check it out. If you enter from the Northern Entrance, off of Interstate 40, you will first come to the Painted Desert. That is because the Painted Desert is about 7,500 square miles and the Petrified Forest National Park is completely inside it. For those of you who have followed our travels, you will recall seeing pictures from the South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana Badlands. The Painted Desert reminds me of the same type of landscape but with different colors. It has more of a reddish tint to it. Looks pretty when you see it from an elevated vantage point.
As you continue southward into the park, you will actually come to a very unique point. The Petrified Forest is the only National Park that had Historic Route 66 within its borders. From 1926 to 1958, Route 66 ran through the Petrified Forest National Park. This introduced millions of people to the Petrified Forest. Today there is the remains of a 1932 Studebaker to mark where Route 66 was. And you can see lines of telephone poles that ran parallel to the old route.
Once we took in the significance of the Route 66 spot, we continued southward until we got to Newspaper Rock. It is called that because over 650 images have been carved into the rocks. These are called petroglyphs. They were created by the ancestral Puebloan people between 650 to 2000 years ago. It is theorized that multiple generations had carved images into these boulders. I joked around with the boys and told them that they are looking at some of the earliest forms of graffiti. Hahaha.
Next, on down the road, we came to the Agate Bridge. This is one of the first examples of petrified trees that we have seen. This log fell into a river and was covered by sediment. As previously described, silica from volcanic ask combined with it to make it into quartz. As the river continued to erode the rock and dirt along the riverbed, it stayed in place. It looked like a bridge across the river, with a length of 100 feet. The river has since dried up and men have put concrete under the petrified tree so it would not eventually crack in half. So, it is still there to see and enjoy.
After the Agate Bridge, we came to the Jasper Forest. This spot has one of the largest accumulations of petrified wood in the entire world. When you walk out onto the observation area, you will see petrified logs and log pieces in every direction. It was originally called the First Forest because it was the first petrified forest available to railroad travelers in the early 1900s.
We left the Jasper Forest and made our way to the information center area that had a museum, gift shop and parking; the customary buildings you see by an entrance to a National Park. We had finally arrived at the Southern Entrance. From here, there are a few different hikes you can take. So we hiked and headed out to Long Logs, just north of the parking area. This is an area where it looked like trees had fallen, floated down a river and got stuck along the way into various log jams. The path takes you out among some of them. There are full-sized and very long logs all over the place. This is the first time we could really get up close and personal to examine the multiple and vibrant colors that made up the petrified logs.
Once finished with Long Logs, we hiked back to the parking area and stopped off in the information center for a bathroom break. While in there, we saw some displays and learned that this area also supported a population of phytosaurs. These are crocodile like creatures whose heads could grow up to 3 feet or so in length, with a total body length of 17 feet and weigh up to 2100 pounds! We saw a fossil of a cranium that is over 21 million years old. They were a top aquatic predator in the area during their time period.
Leaving the information center feeling relieved, we headed south to Giant Logs. This is behind the information center and up on the hill. There is a petrified log there called Old Faithful. This log spans more than 10 feet wide at the base. It truly was a giant log. It was surrounded by other large logs, but, it truly was the giant of them all.
Once finished with Giant Logs, we hopped back into Ebony and continued our trek to New Mexico. This National Park was unlike any I had seen before. I do not recall any of us seeing petrified logs, much less a forest of them. If you are heading across I-40 between New Mexico and Flagstaff, Arizona, I would take a few hours and explore this desert that once was a subtropical forest. Safe Travels.