US National Parks Road Trip: Acres of Petrified Wood Tell the Secrets of Arizona's Triassic Rainforest

Gallup, New Mexico is not a town I would normally think of when remembering my five-month road trip across the United States. But it holds a dear place as the start of our National Parks adventure. 

A sleepy town, a worn hotel, and not much to write home about, Gallup was the base we decided on due to it being the halfway-point between the Petrified Forest National Park and Canyon de Chelly. It would be a two-day adventure, we decided, and the Petrified Forest (and Painted Desert) would be explored on the first day. 

The next morning we ate breakfast, packed our snacks, and drove a little over an hour to arrive at what would be my first official National Park. I'd visited National Heritage Sites and Monuments before, but never a park like this. 

Petrified Forest National Park:

The "Petrified Forest was set aside as a national monument in 1906 to preserve and protect the petrified wood for its scientific value. It is recognized today for having so much more than wood, including a broad representation of the Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem, significant human history, clear night skies, fragile grasslands ecosystem, and unspoiled scenic vistas." (NPS)

Passing the entry booth, Alex and I quickly decided that we wanted US National Parks to be an important part of our trip, so we invested $80 to purchase the annual park pass. With each park costing $20 to $30 just to enter, we knew right away it'd pay itself off quickly. 

Our commute to the park went along Interstate 40, formerly the historical Route 66, which split the park into two parts. The north side was primarily the Painted Desert and the south, petrified wood. Due to our entry location, we arrived at the Painted Desert visitor center first. 

I'll admit, I hadn't done any research so had no idea what "petrified" meant as it pertained to a forest. I'd never heard the term before. But friendly, knowledgable guides were eager to fill us in and get us on our way.

The Painted Desert:

Maps and jugs of water in tow, we were directed to the picturesque 28-mile road where we could drive and explore the entire park (since no camping was allowed, besides backcountry camps with a permit). Our first stop: the Painted Desert.  

I could not have come close to imagining the vibrant hues of red (and sometimes a light blue/purple) that painted the landscape in front of me when we arrived at our first overlook. 

So this is why they call it "painted", I realized.

The Painted Desert is a spread of badlands that represent the Triassic Chinle Formation: essentially, river deposits. 

Wait, so this was a river? Well, over 200 million years ago. Like late Triassic Period. 

It was hard for me to come to terms with the notion that the desert I was standing in had once been full of water. But it became more and more apparent as we drove on. 

Our drive down the 28-mile road transported us through acres of diverse badlands including Blue Mesa, and though the park has an average of over 600,000 visitors each year, it felt like we had it all to ourselves. 

Each curve, nook, and change of color throughout the land described an era and change in climate that once occurred there. 

With an action camera, smartphone cameras, and a less than stellar tripod, we excitedly took photos and video of everything, like tourists in our own country.

Figures replicating 2,000 year old Petroglyphs danced in our shadows, and Puebloan structures left memories of civilization in the cracks of stone foundations.

But it was only when we approached the walking trails granting access to observe crystallized logs up close, that we began to truly recognize the desert's surroundings for its history. 

Remnants of a subtropical forest, trees up to 200 feet tall, and creatures that we never learned about in elementary school crept into our imaginations as we read maps and information boards. 

The Petrified Forest's ancient trees shimmered under the high afternoon sun as the quartz in the fossilized logs reflected the glare. 

"The brilliant colors in the petrified wood come mainly from three minerals. Pure quartz is white, manganese oxides form blue, purple, black, and brown, and iron oxides provide hues from yellow through red to brown." (NPS)

They never mentioned how hypnotizing it could be.

Watch This Short Video And Get A Taste Of My Visit To The Petrified Forest National Park:

Video editing: Olivia Christine

Wellness Tips for your adventure:

This visit marked the beginning of my journey to explore more natural wonders throughout the United States. It also marked a moment of realizing there was no way a small water bottle would suffice out there during a day trip. 

Be sure to bring at least a gallon of water, sunscreen, a thick billed hat, a sweater or light-colored cotton t-shirt (depending on the season), good walking shoes, and sunglasses for an enjoyable trip. 


Share it!

I was in shock when I learned about Arizona's triassic beginnings. I just could not imagine Arizona as such a lush environment. 

What do you think about the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert?


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