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National Park Geologic Sites Draw Raves and Rants


Is Petrified Forest National Park really boring beyond endurance? NPS photo.

National Park System units or administrative areas dominate the recently released Smithsonian list of “The Ten Most Spectacular Geologic Sites” in America. Meanwhile, Yahoo! Travel has rated a geology-themed national park as one of “America’s Most Over-Rated Tourist Attractions.” Now that is a mixed bag!

Smithsonian considers these to be the ten must-see geologic sites in the continental United States (National Park Service-administered sites are boldfaced):

1. Grand Canyon (AZ)
2. Yellowstone National Park (WY/MO/ID)
3. Niagara Falls (NY)
4. Meteor Crater (AZ)
5. Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (WA)
6. La Brea Tar Pits (CA)
7. San Andreas Fault at the Carrizo Plain (CA)
8. Mammoth Cave National Park (KY)
9. The Ice Age Flood Trail [sic] (WA/OR/ID)
10. Lava Beds National Monument (CA)

It’s easy to understand why fully half of the slots on the Smithsonian list are accounted for by places that are in the National Park System or administered by the National Park Service (in the case of Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail). After all, the bar is set very high for admittance to the National Park System. No site or area is supposed to make the cut if it isn’t truly exceptional in the national frame of reference.

This leaves us to wonder why Andrew Harper over at Yahoo! Travel has gone out of his way to single out Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park as one of America's most over-rated tourist attractions. This is what Mr. Harper has to say about visiting Petrified Forest:

From the north entrance of the park off of Interstate 40, a roughly 25-mile driving route meanders south among a spare expanse of rocks and sand, until you find yourself on Highway 180. Then you drive back up to Interstate 40 and continue on your way, an hour closer to the grave.

Hard to mistake the intent there! As diss-ing goes, this one is about as cruel as it gets. You can imagine what Mr. Harper has to say about Fisherman’s Wharf, Wall Street, Plymouth Rock, the Alamo, Hollywood, Bourbon Street, and RMS Queen Mary. These sites and Petrified Forest are all places that leave Mr. Harper “underwhelmed” or “exhausted.”

I’m curious to know whether these feelings are shared by Traveler readers who’ve visited Petrified Forest and the parks on Smithsonian’s list. Are the five NPS-administered sites on the Smithsonian list really the very best geologic sites in the Park System? Is Petrified Forest really a place that leaves visitors underwhelmed and disappointed?


Why Niagara? To have at least one out of ten locations in the northeast? Erosion is covered by Grand Canyon. And what else can you see (regarding geology) at Niagara? And I'm not sure if the La Brea Tar Pits should be "the" fossil site of the list. Dinosaur National Monument or John Day Fossil Beds National Monument might be better choices, even they are much more out of the way. Maybe they included the Tar Pits because they are easy to reach for many of their readers.

And regarding Petrified Forest: I'm fine with it, if those who rely on Yahoo for information don't go there. The park is not crowded by any means, but having the Mr. Harpers stay on the interstate highway and pass it without stopping, can only improve the experience for everyone else. This park is for those who enjoy walking among the Blue Mesas, explore the fossilized wood and the other fossils of the park or just hike into the badlands of the southern or the painted desert in the northern part of the park.

To understand Petrified Forest you have to get out of your car and walk! The spectacular parts are not scenic views from your car. The beauty of the landscape becomes evident when you lose yourself amidst the rolling terrain of arroyos and hills. There are places where dinosaur fossils literally lie on the surface if you know what you are looking for. The Yahoo travel writer had no idea what to look for. Perhaps he should have stopped at the visitor center, read a guide, or talked to a ranger!

I'm glad the Yahoo traveler writer didn't get out of his vehicle in the Petrified Forest. If he would have stopped at the visitor's center he would have learned something. I have visited the site many times and am planning to go again. It is beautiful but you have to get out of your vehicle and explore the wonderful trails in the park. After hearing how Yahoo Traveler writers "explore" travel sites I know why their site isn't exactly helpful in planning trips. I'm glad Mr Harper didn't get out of his vehicle. He can stay on the interstate highway systems and miss the wonders of Arizona.

MRC is right-on about the fossil sites. If the new VC at Dinosaur NM continues the traditional logbook for
visitors, don't miss the stunned comments by shaken religious fundamentalists! The Emmons Glacier at Mount
Rainier is probably the best example of an active glacier in the lower 48, but don't wait too long... Crater Lake is an even more impressive, more beautiful, and more accessible site of explosive volcanism than Mount St. Helens. BTW, interesting recent article on the latter in the NY Times:

I've visited La Brea tarpits, and while some of it was informative and interesting, I left quite disappointed that there wasn't more information or the ability to better see into any of the working pits. We read everything there was, and were out of there in under an hour. I think a lot more could be done.

Harper (not his/her real name) states in his/her bio, "Andrew Harper has an abiding passion for classic hospitality and refined service..."

In other words, places where nature is kept managed and to the fringes and the lodging of choice is a four-star hotel, not a four-man tent. He's writing to a completely different set of travelers than those who frequent this blog. I have a feeling a trip with Harper would be a truly mind-numbing and frustrating vacation for me!

The two times I've been to Petrified Forest I was one of those people who didn't get out of the car. When I was 16 I made a crosscountry trip with firends of the family and they didn't believe in hiking so I just had to look out the window. The second time the visitor center closed 20 minutes early (and yes I was on the correct time) so I didn't get any help from staff and wasn't sure where I could go while hauling my travel trailer. BUt even though I saw the park through a windshield, it was enough to capture my interest and it made me want to come back and experience even more.

Ranger Holly

The whole National Park Service is a compendium of geologic wonders. I'm not sure how they could include some of these places when there are some incredibly iconic places such as Yosemite Valley, Arches NP (Delicate Arch is possibly the most awe inspiring piece of rock I've ever seen), or Zion Canyon.

That they didn't consider Yosemite Valley to be one of the top 10 geologic sites in the continental US is telling.

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