Petrified Forest NP: Nature’s Canvas


Colors of The Painted Desert

A new opportunity to learn more about what life was like for early residents of the Arizona desert is one more reason we’d love to return. We’ve driven through the area several times, and have always been struck by the stark beauty of the region. Wide, sweeping views across the badlands, decked out in shades of reds, purples and grays always make us feel we’re part of something bigger. All of the colors of the Painted Desert are produced by different types of rock as well as concentrations of different minerals within the rocks. Then there’s the sky. It’s absolutely endless, dotted with puffy clouds and gleaming beams of sunlight. Darker gray sheets hover over distant mountains, hinting at faraway rain.

Petrified Forest

Hills of The Painted Desert

New Village Discovered in the Petrified Forest

Pieces of ceramic, fragments of stone tools, and careful collection of field notes, led archaeologists recently to the discovery of an ancient village within Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Scientists believe the village, which covers about 66 acres, is 1300-1800 years old. Clusters of “pit houses” demarcate where the village stood. This would have been part of the transition from people living as hunter-gatherers, to come together and settle for longer periods of time in groups in villages. Though the Hopi, Zuni and Navaho tribes have cultural ties to the lands that make up Petrified National Forest, the artifacts that have been found pre-date the arrival of those tribes.

Petrified Forest Logs

Petrified Conifers

Long, long ago, Arizona was a lush, green wetlands with lots of streams and mud, and giant, tall trees. It’s said that at some point, flood waters carried huge logs onto the sandy plains, and ultimately those logs were covered with volcanic ash and silt. When water containing silica seeped into the logs, they eventually petrified, only to be uncovered MUCH later by erosion. Some of the logs in the park are massive! The pieces of petrified wood are solid rock. It’s hard to imagine it ever could have been wood. All of those textures and patterns are amazing to see. If you visit, mind the rules, though. Up to 12 tons of petrified wood per year have been lost in the past due to theft! We heard though that taking a piece was sure to bring bad luck. The Park office receives countless packages each year from people begging for the pieces of rock they took to be put back where it came from, hopefully restoring their lives back to normal after suffering all kinds of mishaps as a result of their irresponsible actions.

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How to Get Here and Where to Start

Most visitors explore the area by car, driving the 28-mile road that takes in the Painted Desert to the north of the highway before looping down to the Petrified Forest to the south. (Off of I-40, take exit 311 from the east or 285 from the west. The closest town is Holbrook.) There are many pull-outs and overlooks, as well as short, paved walks. Plan for at least 2 hours if you’re just driving through. You’ll definitely want to stop . . . a lot. If you have more time, there are also some great hikes in the backcountry. These new routes are being publicized more, and Park Rangers can give you ideas as well. There’s even a section of Historic Route 66 that runs through the park. Travelers heading west along that famous Main Street of America passed right through the Painted Desert, maybe stopping at the pink-hued Painted Desert Inn along the way. The building is still there today, and holds a museum within its architecturally significant walls.

More to Explore

Even with the recent discovery of several ancient villages, and remnants of even older fossils, there is still a lot of land in the park that has not been explored. As much-needed public funds can be funneled in, and new rounds of scientists, archaeologists and interns spend more time here, there are certain to be more exciting developments in the future. The new, more open access to the backcountry calls us back too. We’d love to visit the historic Painted Desert Inn on a future visit.  There’s an amazing mountain lion petroglyph on display inside! As geocachers, we were also excited to discover the Petrified Forest National Park EarthCache Program, guiding cachers to some of the park’s coolest spots. Regardless of how you choose to explore here, one view of the striped hills of the Painted Desert, and you’ll be hungry for more, guaranteed.

About the author

Tamara and Donny have wandered together since 2004, with no cure for their insatiable wanderlust. They write about discovering new destinations including beautiful photography, plus budget travel tips and how to give back through travel.