SW National Parks Trip: Petrified Forest

In my last post, I shared our visit to the Painted Desert section of Petrified Forest National Park.  Then we traveled further south on the road through the park and visited the areas where there is more petrified wood.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this area was part of a sub-tropical river system during the Late Triassic period.  Researchers believe the river was about the size of the Amazon or Mississippi Rivers.  These soils contain an abundant number of fossils; plants and animals that would have once lived in a river ecosystem.  Mollusks, claims, shrimp, insects, amphibians and phytosaurs, which have similarities to modern day crocodiles, are all part of the fossil record here.  There are also early dinosaurs.  Plant fossils found here include ferns, horsetails, conifers, and several unclassified plants.


How cute is this little guy!

How cute is this little guy!

The petrified logs that we saw on our visit fell and were washed downstream in the river.  They were quickly covered over by sediments, and the organic material was replaced by silica that came from volcanic ash.  At that point though, there are two ways that a log can become petrified.

If the silica fills the tree’s cell walls by forming on the inner surface of the walls until the entire cavity of the cell is filled, and then the process of petrification stopped there, the organic cell walls would remain intact.  This usually occurred because there was a lack of water at that point.  This is called permineralization, and creates a log that is tan and brown and resembles modern wood.

However, if the petrification process continued, and the remaining organic material in the tree degraded and was replaced by more silica crystals, this creates a psuedomorph; a copy of wood.  These logs are very colorful, because trace minerals soak into the wood along with the silica.  Iron creates mustard yellow, orange, rich red, ochre and black.  Blue, purple, brown and black are cause by manganese.  Manganese can also create fern-like patterns in the petrified wood.

The detail on these logs is incredible!  Some of the logs feature knots where the branches were torn away when the tree traveled downriver.  Others have finger-wide holes in the logs; these are caused by damage from prehistoric beetles!


A closeup showing the colors in the petrified wood.

A closeup showing the colors in the petrified wood.

Jon and I stopped at the Jasper Forest overlook, to see where petrified wood that was once trapped in the earth of the bluff have now tumbled down the hill to the valley below.  It is neat to see all the chunks of petrified wood down in the valley.  The landscape here makes up part of the Sonsela Member, which dates to about 216 Million years ago.  It isn’t as colorful as the Blue Mesa Member, but still very beautiful.

Petrified wood below the bluff at the Jasper Forest.  This formation is part of the Sonsela Member - at 216 million years old.

Petrified wood below the bluff at the Jasper Forest. This formation is part of the Sonsela Member – at 216 million years old.

We also did a short hike on the Giant Logs Trail that is behind the Rainbow Forest Museum.  The wood here is quite large, and you can get right up close to the pieces.  The pieces of wood along the Giant Logs Trail are examples of the more colorful type of petrified wood.

A giant petrified log on the Giant Logs Trail.  Fitting...

A giant petrified log on the Giant Logs Trail. Fitting…

I would have loved to spend more time here.  There are trails leading to Puebloan ruins and petroglyphs, as well as other trails where you can view more petrified wood.  A new trail also opened in spring 2014, which leads to a previously difficult to access section of the park.  This trail, called the Devil’s Playground, is only accessible with a back country permit (available at the Visitor’s Center), but gives hikers a view of eroded hoodoos.  That will certainly be on the list for the next time we visit.

And one more important mention.  In case you weren’t aware, it is a federal offense, punishable with a $350 fine, to steal petrified wood.  Of course, lots of people are stupid, so one of the biggest issues for the park is the theft of tons of petrified wood each year.  But that’s where the Curse of the Petrified Forest plays a part.  Over the years, thousands of people have returned wood that they have stolen over the years, often with letters explaining that they were befallen with terrible luck after they took advantage of the five finger discount.  So many people believe in the curse in fact, that the museum has devoted a whole room to the letters and stories of the unlucky offenders.

Have you had the chance to hike in Petrified Forest National Park?  And do you believe in the Curse of the Petrified Forest?

SW National Parks Trip: The Painted Desert

We began our trip through Petrified Forest National Park with a stop at the Visitor’s Center, for postcards and my National Parks stamp!  As Visitor’s Centers go, this is a fairly large one, with a cafe and even a gas station!  But with this being a stop-through for us, we didn’t have enough time to do any major hiking, so we got the information on the highlights and moved on.

The Entrance Sign at Petrified Forest National Park

The Entrance Sign at Petrified Forest National Park

The park is basically a 26 mile north-south strip of land, with a road running north-south through the middle of it.  About half of the park lies north of Interstate 40, and half lies south.  Holbrook is the only town of any size nearby and it is located at the southern end of the park.  We drove north first, into the Painted Desert.

As I discussed in my last post, the Painted Desert is a badlands desert consisting of layers of siltstone, mudstone, and shale, topped with layers of limestone and volcanic ash.  Due to the fact that these layers erode at different rates, the landscape has become a series of colorful mesas rising above a valley floor.  It is considered a cold desert, warm in the summers and cold in the winters, but it receives hardly any snow – less than 3 inches per year.

The red layers of the Chinle Formation

The red layers of the Chinle Formation

Along our way we stopped by to see the Painted Desert Inn.  This Inn was built between 1937 and 1940 using Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) labor.  The Inn prided itself on offering excellent hospitality to travelers stopping at this remote location along Route 66.  The Inn also served meals in an onsite diner and had an ice cream and soda fountain counter.  From 1947 to 1963, the Inn and the diner were operated by the Fred Harvey Company and staffed with Harvey Girls.

The Painted Desert Inn - built 1937 to 1940

The Painted Desert Inn – built 1937 to 1940

The Fred Harvey Company revolutionized the concept of travel dining and is credited with establishing the first chain restaurant.  When trains began shuttling people west in the mid 1800s, the only option for meals during the journey was at roadhouses at stops along the tracks.  The food was subpar.  Fred Harvey began building inns and restaurants at key stops along the rail line, and created a system to quickly feed all of the passengers on the train a quick yet quality meal.

He eventually transitioned to hiring only young, single, white female servers and established strict expectations for them.  To be a Harvey Girl meant adhering to a high standard of manners and civility, remaining single, wearing a very conservative serving uniform, and having a curfew of 10 pm.  In exchange, they received a generous wage for the time, and room and board.

The Painted Desert Inn closed in 1963, and was slated for demolition until there was a public outcry by citizens.  It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.  Now the soda fountain and diner have been restored, and you can see what it would have looked like when it was operating as an inn.  The Inn also contains a small museum with exhibits on its history, and historic photographs and postcards.  It was a brief stop, but well worth the time.

As I mentioned, Petrified Forest National Park is located along historic Route 66, the famed route that lead people from Chicago to Los Angeles.  The park has a scenic viewpoint dedicated to Route 66, where you can see where the road once was.  It is marked by the old telephone poles that once lined the stretch of road, adjacent to the current Interstate 40.  It was interesting to think about some of my relatives traveling on this same stretch long before I was alive.

This car didn't make it to California!  The telephone poles in the background mark the old Route 66.

This car didn’t make it to California! The telephone poles in the background mark the old Route 66.

We also stopped to see The Tepees area, which contain mesas with thick deposits of grey, blue, purple, and green mudstones and minor sandstone beds.  The layering and color differences are very prominent here, and we enjoyed checking out the different mesas and comparing them.  The Tepees area of the park is part of the Blue Mesa Member, which is one of the oldest layers in the Chinle Formation; it is 220-225 million years old.  Wow.  In case you didn’t know, like me, Member means layer.

The blue, gray and red layers of The Tepees area

The blue, gray and red layers of The Tepees area

The Blue Mesa Member in The Tepees area. It is 220 - 225 Million Years Old

The Tepees area; part of the Blue Mesa Member.
It is 220 – 225 Million Years Old

In my next post, I’ll tell you about our visit to the southern section of the park, which contains more petrified wood!

Have you been to Petrified Forest National Park?  What was your favorite part?


SW National Parks Trip: Petrified Forest History

Petrified Forest National Park is located right along Interstate 40, so we were going to drive straight through it on our way from Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon.  So, of course, it was next on our list!

Petrified Forest National Park contains 221,552 acres (146 square miles) of land, which is divided into two main areas, the Petrified Forest which gives the park its name, and the Painted Desert.  Each area is very different.  The petrified logs were created in the late Triassic period, about 225 million years ago.  At this point in history the area was sub-tropical, warm and humid.  Trees fell into streams and sometimes were quickly covered with sediment.  This allowed the organic material to remain intact, and over time minerals leached into the wood and replaced the organic material.  The wood becomes stone.

Petrified Wood on a Beautiful Spring Day

Petrified Wood on a Beautiful Spring Day

The area within the park is known as the Chinle Formation, which is present throughout much of the Southwest, and contains many different types of sedimentary rock in different colors.  The Colorado Plateau on which the area sits began to be pushed upward about 60 million years ago, exposing the Chinle Formation to erosion.  The different layers erode at different rates and form a gorgeous landscape of different colors and types of sediments, with raised hills dotting the valley.  The Painted Desert section of the park shows the layers very well, which create the amazing colors.

Gorgeous Layers of Color

Gorgeous Layers of Color

The park contains a number of fossils, in addition to the fossilized wood.  Fossils found in the park have included Late Triassic ferns, cycads (which are a type of tropical tree), ginkgo trees, giant reptiles called phytosaurs (a large reptile that had many similarities to modern crocodiles), large amphibians, and early dinosaurs. The park has had researchers unearthing fossils since the early 20th century.

The area’s earliest human inhabitants arrived about 8,000 years ago, around the same time humans arrived in most of the other areas of the Southwest.  Eventually, like other Puebloan people, they began building pit houses and above ground pueblos.  The park contains over 600 archaeological sites, including the remnants of pit houses, pueblos and petroglyphs.  They abandoned the area around 1400 C.E., like other settlements in the Southwest, probably because of a prolonged drought.

Spanish explorers visited in the 16th century, and American survey teams went through the area in the 19th century looking for a route to the West.  Additional travel through the area and the railroad increased visitation, and sadly, more visitors resulted in the theft of a significant amount of petrified wood.

To protect the area, Petrified Forest was named a National Monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and the designation was changed to a National Park in 1962.  Annual visitation is now approximately 600,000 annually.  In my next post, I will tell you about my visit!


SW National Parks Trip: Petroglyph National Monument

One of the sad things about our time in Albuquerque was that it was just too short!  We had spent the afternoon in the Old Town area of Albuquerque the day before, and we had enough time to visit Petroglyph National Monument, located just outside of Albuquerque, before getting on the road again.

Petroglyph National Monument has a long history, but is a relatively new National Monument.  Petroglyph NM stretches 17 miles, or 7,236 acres of land, containing 5 volcanic cones, hundreds of archaeological sites, and over 24,000 petroglyph images.  The land runs in a narrow strip along the West Mesa, a volcanic basalt escarpment that runs along the West side of Albuquerque.

The West Mesa contains 5 volcanoes which erupted about 150,000 years ago and created cinder cone peaks.  The volcanoes are now considered dormant, but they left large pieces of basalt caprock, which when left to the earth’s devices over thousands of years, developed a patina on their surface.  The petroglyphs were created by chipping away this patina to reveal a high contrast, lighter surface underneath the black basalt.

The area that Petroglyph now occupies was another site where the Puebloan people lived.  Their population increased dramatically around 1,300 C.E., presumably because this area is located near the Rio Grande river and other Puebloan sites were experiencing a severe drought.  Many of the petroglyphs are dated from between 1,300 and approximately 1,680, when the Pueblo Revolt occurred.  Researchers estimate that over 1,000 people lived in the Rio Grande Valley.

Part of the land that now makes up Petroglyph National Monument was part of the Atrisco Land Grant, which established the town of Atrisco in 1692.  The land grant was presented to certain colonists by the Spanish crown.  Many of these colonists were shepherds, and probably created some of the newer petroglyphs that depict crosses, animals brands and letters.

Petroglyph was authorized as a National Monument on June 27, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, and receives approximately 114,428 visitors annually.  Petroglyph is unique in that part of the land is owned federally and part is owned by the City of Albuquerque; the two manage the site in partnership.  Sadly though, there is a bit of a bureaucratic scuffle – the City refuses to allow federal park rangers to patrol the sections of land that are owned by the City.  The City made cuts to its parks department due to budget restrictions, and now the monument is suffering a bit because vandals have easy access to get in an damage the petroglyphs.

Admission to the monument is free; parking costs $1, but your National Parks Passport covers that.  We arrived mid-morning, and stopped by the Visitor’s Center to get my stamp and some postcards.  They also have a trail guide that you can purchase – I think it was $1.  There are three main areas that you can visit; the Boca Negra (Black Mouth) Canyon, the Upper Canyon Area, and the Rinconada (Corner) Canyon.  The Rinconada Canyon looked like a really interesting place to visit, but unfortunately the trail collapsed last year.  Work to restore the trail has been partially completed, but there still isn’t an estimate on when the Canyon will reopen.

I think this guy is a Common Side-Blotched Lizard - unless somebody has another idea!

I think this guy is a Common Side-Blotched Lizard – unless somebody has another idea!

We visited the Boca Negra Canyon, which has three short trails ranging from 5 minutes to 30 minutes each.  We did all the trails and saw some really neat petroglyphs, including ones depicting snakes, yucca seed pods and macaws.  The trails are all easy to moderate, but as several signs point out, they are not suitable for wheelchairs or strollers.  I found it amusing that they so clearly marked it when it was so obvious!  There were large rocks in the trail, and it was narrow and uneven.  There was no way you could get a wheelchair or a stroller up there!

This is the trail you would take a wheelchair or a stroller on, right?

This is the trail you would take a wheelchair or a stroller on, right?

A snake petroglyph

A snake petroglyph

The neat thing about the petroglyphs is that there is always something to see – they are dependent on how the light is shining on them, so you notice a petroglyph on the way down the trail that you didn’t see on the way up.  And unlike other petroglyph sites, they are really abundant here, so you see a different one each time you turn your head.  Surprisingly, Boca Negra contains only 4% of the petroglyphs within the Monument!

A petroglyph figure

A petroglyph figure

I don't know what kind of animal this is - but he's cute!

I don’t know what kind of animal this is – but he’s cute!

A macaw petroglyph - the Puebloan people had extensive trade networks

A macaw petroglyph – the Puebloan people had extensive trade networks

And one of the best moments of our trip happened as we were heading back down the last trail to the car.  Jon was walking in front of me (as usual) and wasn’t paying attention until I yelled “Jon!  Stop!”  The tone of my voice made him stop immediately.  He hadn’t even noticed that a few feet in front of him was a snake crossing the trail!

The snake wasn’t the least bit bothered by us, so after initially being startled, I was able to get some photos of him while he slithered to his destination in the rocks on the other side.  After taking a close look at the photos, I think he was a Gopher Snake.  I love seeing wildlife, so I was super excited!

Our friend - the Gopher Snake!

Our friend – the Gopher Snake!

A close up of the Gopher Snake's head

A close up of the Gopher Snake’s head

We spent a little more than an hour here, before getting on the road for the day’s driving; our next stop was Petrified Forest National Park!

Have you been to Petroglyph National Monument?  Which was your favorite petroglyph?  And if you are knowledgeable about snakes, can you confirm that the one we saw was a Gopher Snake?



SW National Parks Trip: Rattlesnakes in Albuquerque!

After spending the morning at the Palace of the Governor’s and the New Mexico History Museum, Jon and I got back on the road and headed to Albuquerque. We wanted to check out the old town area. It took a little less than an hour to get there, and one argument about where there would be a gas station (note for readers: it is not in the historic downtown…). We arrived in time for a late lunch at a Mexican restaurant – Jon had a vegetable burrito and I had a delicious taco salad. Yum! The temperature in Albuquerque was much warmer than it was in Santa Fe, so I could actually take my jacket off – and not wear a hat! What a huge improvement!

We spent a little time wandering around old town Albuquerque, poking into shops and galleries. We saw the Iglesia de San Felipe de Neri, a Catholic parish church that was founded in 1706. San Felipe de Neri is the oldest church in Albuquerque, and has been continuously operated since its founding by Franciscan Friars. The original church was finished in 1719 a short distance away, but collapsed after a heavy rainfall in 1792; the current adobe church was built in 1793. The adobe walls are 5 feet thick! The towers on the church were added in 1861.

San Felipe de Neri Church in Albuquerque

San Felipe de Neri Church in Albuquerque

You can visit for free, but they do request donations to help in the upkeep of the church. The interior is beautiful, with an intricately decorated sanctuary.

The Sanctuary at San Felipe de Neri

The Sanctuary at San Felipe de Neri

After we visited San Felipe, we went to the other side of the plaza and found the Rattlesnake Museum. I came across it when we were researching the trip and Jon told me there was absolutely no way he was going into a building with live snakes. It looked cheesy, but I thought it sounded fascinating! Of course, I put it on the things of potential things to do and resolved that I would somehow convince Jon to go. Or just let him sit outside.

When we were standing outside, he told me he would go in with me! The Rattlesnake Museum is a small privately operated museum that is clearly run by a man with a love for these hard-to-love creatures. The museum has quite a collection of snake memorabilia. They have posters, snakebite kits, toys and games featuring snakes, jewelry, clothing, and snake advertising. In addition to rattlesnakes, the museum also contains other kinds of snakes; King snakes and Corn snakes, tarantulas, lizards and a Gila Monster. Gila Monsters are one of only two types of venomous lizards in the world!

Mollie the Gila Monster

Mollie the Gila Monster

But obviously, the rattlesnakes are the real stars here. The museum has more species of rattlesnakes than the Bronx Zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, the National Zoo, the Denver Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo combined – 34 varieties of rattlesnakes in all. Some of the snakes are very unusual, including an amelanistic rattlesnake (more commonly known as an albino), a melanistic rattlesnake (the opposite of albino – having too much pigment) and snakes with unusual color patterns.

An Albino Snake!

An Albino Snake!

I was fascinated walking through, and loved seeing all the snakes – thankfully tucked away behind glass.  I learned quite a bit too, including the fact that rattlesnakes live in all but four U.S. states: Maine, Delaware, Alaska, and Hawaii.  And did you know that rattlesnakes are born alive?  They have litters anywhere between 4 and 25 after the female carries her eggs inside her body and gives birth to live snakes after the eggs hatch.  And Jon, with his fear of snakes?  He enjoyed himself too! And to prove that we conquered our fears, we each got a Certificate of Bravery. What fun!

A Melanistic Rattlesnake

A Melanistic Rattlesnake

How about you?  Would you dare to visit the Rattlesnake Museum?

SW National Parks Trip: Palace of the Governor’s

Our last morning in Santa Fe had arrived…  Jon wasn’t feeling like trying out a new place for breakfast, so we went back to the Plaza Café – our breakfast haunt from the previous morning.  Jon had his new usual – the egg white omelet with fruit and toast.  And coffee.  I ordered something different – the Traditional, with two eggs over medium, ham, toast, hash browns and hot tea.  Once again, it was a good meal, with fast and friendly service.

After breakfast, we sat on a bench in the middle of Santa Fe’s plaza and watched the fattest pigeon I have ever seen scrounge for his breakfast.  Amusing, but sad to to think that he probably got that way because people feed him lots of unhealthy snacks.

Look at this Fat Guy!

Look at this Fat Guy!

When the Palace of the Governor’s opened, we went inside and got our tickets. $9 admits one adult non-New Mexico resident to the Palace of the Governor’s and the New Mexico History Museum.  If you are going to be in the area for longer, $20 will get you admission into 4 Santa Fe museums in a 4 day period.  Or if you are visiting more than just Santa Fe, the New Mexico Culture Pass will get you admission to 8 New Mexico Museums and 7 State Historic Sites for $25 (the Culture Pass lasts for one year – and admits you once to each location).  Both are pretty great deals – if you are into museums and historic sites, like we are…

Palace of the Governor's - Built 1610

Palace of the Governor’s – Built 1610

The Palace of the Governor’s is fascinating.  It was built in 1610 by the Spanish – it was the seat of government for the Spanish colony of Nuevo Mexico, which covered present day Texas, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California, and New Mexico.  During the Spanish colonial period, the Spanish treated the Native Indians poorly, with a forced labor system that was basically slavery.

One tribal leader, Popé, planned and executed a revolt of several of the tribes in the area.  He dispatched runners with knotted cords to each of the tribal leaders.  The knots were to be untied one each day, and on the day that the last knot was untied, the Indians were to attack the Spanish and drive them from the area in a collaborated revolt.

The Spanish caught some of the runners and tortured them to learn the significance of the knots, and as a result the revolt had to happen earlier than planned.  However, it was still very successful.  They managed to drive the Spanish out of the area for twelve years. During that time they attempted to wipe all Spanish influence from the Palace of the Governor’s, which the Indians had begun using.

When New Mexico was annexed as a U.S. territory, the Palace of the Governor’s was used as the first territorial capitol building.  It is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States.

The museum has lots of artifacts from the colonial period when the Spanish were exploring the area and setting up outposts. They have cookware, pottery, lists of supplies etc.  They also display a lot of artifacts that were excavated from the building and its surrounding area when it was renovated. Pottery, ironwork objects, beads from jewelry, religious objects – there was a lot to look at.

Pottery Fragments found at the Palace of the Governor's

Pottery Fragments found at the Palace of the Governor’s

They also have cutouts in the floor that show the original adobe brick floor – they show where one room has a herringbone pattern, which indicates that the room would have been used for higher status individuals. Next door they showed where the servant class or Indians would have lived or worked, with rooms that had a simple adobe brick floor. It was interesting to see how even back then, there were significant markers showing the distinction between the classes.

Dishware Found at the Palace of the Governor's

Dishware Found at the Palace of the Governor’s

After checking out the Palace of the Governor’s, we crossed the courtyard and made our way into the New Mexico History Museum (you get both museums with the same admission, even if you don’t have a pass).  If you do the museum in the right order, it begins during the same Spanish Colonial period, with overviews of the beginnings of the Spanish mission system, the Pueblo Revolt and the retaking of the areas that were regained by the Indians during the revolt.  It also detailed the period after Mexico lost the land to the United States, the expansion into the New Mexico territory by U.S. citizens, and its subsequent frontier and ranching days.  New Mexico entered the union in 1912, the 47th state to join. I didn’t realize it was such a late state!

A Civil War Era Saddle - Used at Fort Wingate

A Civil War Era Saddle – Used at Fort Wingate

There is also an interesting exhibit on the development of the atomic bombs during World War II.  The administrative office for the Manhattan Project was in Santa Fe, and the bombs were built in Los Alamos and tested in the New Mexico desert nearby.  It was interesting to learn that people who were living and working on the project had to maintain absolute secrecy.  They were not allowed to even tell their families where they were – or to send them photos that identified the landscape of New Mexico.  Their mail was screened.

We also went upstairs to see a modern art photography exhibit, but it just didn’t suit my fancy – too modern and weird for my taste.  But it was interesting to see.

If you are in Santa Fe – I strongly recommend these two museums.  The exhibits are very well done – and you get a fantastic overview of New Mexico history.  After we were done at the New Mexico History Museum – it was time to get back on the road to our next destination – Albuquerque!