When I was a little boy, back in 1972, I remember being very excited when Mom and Dad told me we were going to see the Petrified Forest, a place where the trees had turned to stone. I, like many visitors to this gem of a park in Eastern Arizona, fully expected to see the stone trees standing up, and I guess I was a bit disappointed when I realized that they had all fallen down, and the landscape was more "desert-ish" than "forest-y." I'd be lying if I said I wasn't similarly disappointed in the colors of the Painted Desert. My seven-year-old brain thought "well, if you're going to paint it, you could at least use brighter colors!" Subsequent visits as an adult, though, gave me a real appreciation for the wonders of this area.
The park has two entrances. At the north end is the Painted Desert, an area that should not be viewed in the middle of the day when it appears flat and colorless. Get here early in the morning, or catch the sun setting over the hills. There are several great overlooks, each providing its own special view.
Continuing south, you'll pass over Interstate 40 through a narrow little slice of protected land. Watch for pronghorn antelope and other wildlife through the wash of the Puerco River. The Santa Fe Railroad crosses the park in this area, and just past the railroad tracks are the Puerco Ruins. The Mogollon people farmed this area 800 years ago. This is a great place to look for rock art: petroglyphs whose meaning is known only to their creators. Newspaper Rock is about a mile further south along this road, and provides another outstanding set of petroglyphs.
Geology overwhelms most areas of the park, but the next section of road is especially beautiful. The Haystacks, The TeePees and Blue Mesa are all very appropriately named. Again, low-angle light (early morning or late-afternoon) offers the best viewing of these areas. You'll also begin to notice a smattering of rocks across the desert that look strangely like firewood......
Theodore Roosevelt set aside the Petrified Forest in 1906; it was the second national monument. It wasn't until 1962 that Congress formally recognized, through the redesignation of the area as a National Park, the incredible diversity of this area: the scenery, the wildlife, the ruins.
The park's namesake trees are best seen at the overlooks and trails along the road in the southern part of the park. They have wonderfully desciptive names: The Crystal Forest, Rainbow Forest and Long Logs. The trees left exposed here lived 225 million years ago. Their soft tissues were not devoured by animals, and with the perfect combination of temperature, moisture, burial, proximity to a variety of minerals, and other factors all contibuted to a replacement of the wood with stone. Most of the stone is quartz, and depending on the minerals present, the stone takes on a rainbow of colors from purples and blues, through yellows and greens, to oranges and reds. The real beauty of the Petrified Forest is in the details. Take time to get "up close and personal" with a log or slab. It is easy to get lost (figuratively, not literally!) examining all the minute details.
After taking such a close look, you, like millions before you, may be tempted to stick a little piece of wood in your pocket as a souvenir. DON'T DO IT! This is a national park - set aside for all people to learn from and enjoy. Your tiny transgression may not amount to much, but taken collectively with the thousands of others, this area is disappearing. Look, take pictures, but leave the rock behind. Sadly, because of so much theft, the area closes relatively early, making sunset viewing tough. Check with a ranger at one of the visitor centers for recommendations as to how you can best enjoy the area.