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!


2 thoughts on “SW National Parks Trip: Petrified Forest History

  1. Enjoy! We went through this park on our southern route move from Oregon to Missouri (it was winter, and snowy). It was a great stop! In the video at the visitor’s center you learn how many people mail back to the park petrified wood they illegally took out of the park along with letters of apology. The supply is still dwindling every year. Kind of sad.

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