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Park History: Petrified Forest National Park


Though fossilized tree stumps and logs come to mind when you mention Petrified Forest National Park, there also are beautifully hued badlands that ripple across the landscape. Photo by YoTut via Flickr.

Stumps of stone. Rock palettes that tell stories. Prehistory frozen in place for hundreds of millions of years. Colorful badlands. That's a pretty good way to sum up what you'll find at Petrified Forest National Park.

Long a national monument -- that designation was applied to the Painted Desert in east-central Arizona back in 1906 -- it wasn't until this date in 1962 that Petrified Forest became a national park. The monument designation actually was relied upon to protect the incredible petrified forests for scientific studies and value. It was much later that the area's rich fossil resources and archaeological importance were recognized.

Scientific studies are on-going at the park. Paleontologists find new fossils, including new species of plants and animals, each year, says the Park Service. Biologists study living plants and animals, including vegetation surveys and reptile, amphibian, and mammal projects. Archaeological site monitoring is on-going. Air quality, weather, and seismic monitoring stations constantly generate new data.

Rich paleontological reserves and chapters of the Earth's geology both within the park and in the surrounding landscape led to the decision in 2004 to expand Petrified Forest's acreage by more than double, from 93,533 acres to approximately 218,533 acres, an increase of 125,000 acres. At the time the expansion was being considered, it was pointed out that the park's original boundaries had been based largely on survey lines, rather than resource boundaries. By enlarging the park, it was possible to extend protection and preservation for paleontological and geological resources.

How unique are the park's dinosaur graveyards?

Two-hundred-million years ago, during the Triassic Period, this corner of the world featured a large river basin with a spider's web of rivers and streams flowing through thick, tropical vegetation. Trees, ferns and giant horsetails spread across the landscape, and in places there were conifers that grew almost 200 feet tall. Prowling this landscape were early dinosaurs -- giant reptiles, amphibians and somewhat small carnivores that walked on two legs.

In direct competition with these other voracious predators, the small dinosaurs evolved characteristics that would allow them to compete for prey. These evolutionary developments included characters of the pelvis and ankle which allowed the animals to keep their legs straight under their body for a bipedal stance and greater running ability, notes the Park Service. The front limbs were now free for uses such as grasping prey. Evidence also suggests that these early dinosaurs may have traveled in packs allowing them to bring down larger prey including the large cow-like dicynodont Placerias and even the armored aetosaurs such as Desmatosuchus. It is also very likely that these predators were generalists and scavenged carcasses for food as do many carnivores today.

Why is there so much petrified wood in the park?

That's thanks to the large river system and forests that once dominated this landscape millions of years ago. Park geologists say "the mineralogical conditions of the groundwater were conducive to the petrification process. Some researchers offer a 'log jam' theory accounting for the concentration."

The minerals in the water -- iron, hematite and manganese -- are responsible for the beautiful color of the petrified wood.

Park trivia: Within Petrified Forest National Park you can find at least seven different tree species that have been petrified.

What's a visitor to do and see at Petrified Forest National Park?

Well, after strolling through some of the petrified forests or viewing some of the ancestral Puebloan ruins you can learn more about the park's geology, paleontology, and human history by attending one of the monthly lectures at the park's Learning Center.

For the hardy there's backpacking across the park's colorful landscape, there are shorter day hikes that can be sampled, and horseback trips, either for the afternoon or several days, are also popular.

There are no designated campgrounds within the park's boundaries, and to find one outside the park can require a drive of an hour or more.

It currently costs $10 to enter the park in your own car.


The NPCA reports that souvenir-collecting visitors haul away an estimated 12 tons of petrified wood every year in Petrified Forest National Park. I guess if you wait long enough, souvenir hunters, collectors, and thieves will haul away nearly everything of value or interest that isn’t firmly anchored in place and constantly guarded.

A beautiful park! The magnificent sweep of grand vistas and color splashed desert badlands blew me away. The rangers were some of the friendliest and most helpful I'd encountered in quite some time. They truly seemed to enjoy being in this unique preserve located on the edge of nowhere, bisected by the indifferent roar of I-40.

The wood is really only one part of a much larger story at this park.

Among Arizonans (including myself), Petrified Forest is often overlooked. But, it really is one of the coolest places in a state with a long list of such places. The last time I visited - it's probably been 6-8 years now - we were shocked at the $50 fine for stealing petrified wood. A $50 fine for stealing a piece of petrified wood that would cost four times that just outside the park is ludicrously low and not at all a deterrent. I've been told that it's been increased, but unless it's on the order of $5000 or so, it's probably not enough. I hope the expansion acquisitions are realized in the near future - there are plenty of resources that still need protection.

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