Rides & Destinations: Petrified Forest National Park

Visit Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona for spectacular views of ancient structures, but avoid trying to take anything out of the park.

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by Joe Berk

The Skinny

What: Petrified Forest National Park, 1 Park Road, #2217, Petrified Forest, AZ 86028.
Admission: $15 for a motorcycle and passengers for seven days.
How to Get There: From the east, take I-40’s Exit 311. From the west, take either Exit 285 or 286 at Holbrook, Arizona, then US 180 east.
Best Kept Secret: Perhaps the park itself. I’ve driven through this region on I-40 before and never noticed the signs for Petrified Forest National Park. There are also many other places of interest (and many interesting roads) in Arizona. Get a copy of my book Destinations to read more.
Avoid: Leaving home without enough water or a hat (it gets very hot in the summer months); taking anything out of the park
For more photos, check-out The Exhaust Notes Blog. If you’re after more information, the folks at the National Park Service are a great resource.

While planning a trip to New Mexico earlier this year, I asked good buddy and fellow moto-journalist Joe Gresh to recommend places to see along the way. Petrified Forest National Park was the first place he mentioned. It would be on my northern route home and I’d never been there (a character flaw I intended to correct on this trip). As a kid fascinated by all things prehistoric, the concept of a petrified forest was intriguing. I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a forest of stone trees? Not quite, I was to learn.

Petrified Forest National Park straddles Interstate 40 in northeastern Arizona, with the northern entrance approximately 50 miles east of the New Mexico border. Viewed from above, the park looks like a squared-off and lopsided figure 8, with I-40 cutting through at the waist. Petrified Forest National Park is bisected by the road that runs through it; just follow the 30-mile-long road from either the northern or southern entrance as it meanders through an incredibly vibrant and vivid desert floor. And what a stunning 30 miles they are. The panoramic views and colors are breathtaking, including such things as the Painted Desert (a name that speaks for itself, shown in the photo above), Newspaper Rock (covered with ancient petroglyphs), the Rainbow Forest (a field of actual petrified, fallen logs near the park’s southern entrance) and much, much more. Plan on spending at least a half-day on this ride through heaven, and bring a camera.

Theodore Roosevelt designated the area as the Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906 and it became a National Park in 1962, but as you might imagine, its history extends much further into the past. To understand its history, we need to go back hundreds of millions of years. Then, what is now northeastern Arizona was near the equator. Think subtropical climates, low-lying plains, streams, ancient plants and dinosaurs. Trees died and fell during this Late Triassic period 225 million years ago, volcanic ash blanketed everything, groundwater dissolved the ash’s silicon dioxide, and the mix seeped into the fallen trees and formed quartz crystals. These crystals ultimately replaced the trees’ organic matter and then iron oxides and other minerals merged with the silica, thus creating the brilliant colors observed in the petrified trees we see today. Petrified Forest National Park’s fields are littered with stunningly vibrant ancient trees. Several prehistoric species are represented; all are extinct. It is quite amazing.

Human inhabitants arrived in this area more than 8,000 years ago. People grew corn and built pit houses approximately 2,000 years ago. Homes built above ground followed centuries later and became known as pueblos. Human inhabitants left in the 1400s, most likely due to drought. Spanish explorers came on the scene in the 1600s, and by the mid-19th century, a United States government expedition created an east-west route through the area. This early trail would later become Route 66, and ultimately, I-40 (shortly after entering Petrified Forest National Park from the east, there’s a preserved section of the original Route 66 with a vintage automobile that makes for a great photo). Improved access to the region gave rise to tourism; in the early days of the park’s existence, theft of fossils (and specifically, petrified logs) was a serious problem. It’s now a federal crime to remove rocks or fossils from the park, but there are petrified trees outside the park and you can buy artifacts at gift shops in nearby Holbrook. — Joe Berk

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