The Petrified Forest National Park is between Navajo and Holbrook in northeast Arizona, along I-40 and old Route 66. The park is a surprising land of scenic wonders and fascinating science featuring one of the world’s largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood, the multi-hued badlands of the Chinle Formation known as the Painted Desert, historic structures, archeological sites, and displays of 225 million-year-old fossils.
History & Information
The park consists of two large areas connected by a north-south corridor. The northern area encompasses part of the multi-hued badlands known as the Painted Desert. The southern area includes colorful terrain and several concentrations of petrified wood. Several American Indian petroglyph sites are also found in the southern area.
The natural world of Petrified Forest is far more complex than it seems on the surface. Located near the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, the park is part of an incredible geological region with other famous geological parks, such as the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, and Zion, Bryce, and Arches National Parks in Utah. Each has its own character, including which layer of the geological story is featured by that park.
Over 200 million years ago, large trees and rich vegetation flourished in northeast Arizona. The region was a tropical wetland with abundant streams and rivers at that time. During heavy rains, the waterways would flood, sweeping fallen trees into the sandy floodplains. Later, volcanic lava destroyed the forest, and the remains were embedded into sediment comprised of volcanic ash, mud, and water. Trees are transitioned to stone by permineralization, a process of fossilization in which the organic materials are replaced with minerals, such as quartz, making a “cast” of the original organism. Millions of years later, the petrified logs were revealed by erosion.
Much of the striking banded coloration of the Chinle Formation badlands that make up the Painted Desert region is due to soil formation during the Late Triassic period. The soil suggests that the climate was dramatically seasonal, with distinct wet and dry seasons. This climate was probably similar to the modern monsoon of the Indian Ocean region.
The colorful mudstones and clays of the Painted Desert badlands are composed of bentonite, a product of altered volcanic ash. The clay minerals in the bentonite absorb water and the expansion and contraction properties of the bentonite cause rapid erosion. This prevents vegetation from growing on the slopes of the hills.
Other prominent features created by erosion are the plentiful mesas and buttes located throughout the park. Both have flat tops of more erosion-resistant sandstone over softer clays. Mesas are quite broad but not very tall, while buttes are taller and more narrow.
The Petrified Forest and Painted Desert are also rich in human history, dating back more than 13,000 years. More than 600 archeological sites have been found in the park. Folsom-type spear points, the earliest artifacts of Paleo-Indians, which lived during the final glacial episodes, have been found and many more artifacts, petroglyphs, and the remains of pueblos from later inhabitants. – See: People of the Painted Desert & Petrified Forest
From the 16th through the 18th centuries, explorers looking for routes between Spanish colonies along the Rio Grande to the southeast and other Spanish colonies on the Pacific coast to the west passed near or through the area, which they called El Desierto Pintado, the Painted Desert. However, the park’s oldest Spanish inscriptions, left by descendants of the region’s early Spanish colonists, date only to the late 19th century.
The Petrified Forest area was designated a National Monument on December 8, 1906. The Painted Desert was added later, and on December 9, 1962, the whole monument received National Park status. Today, the park covers 93,532.57 acres.
The Painted Desert Inn was built in 1924 on a high perch overlooking the Painted Desert by Herbert Lore in 1924. The two-story inn, nicknamed the Stone Tree House, was operated as an inn and tourist attraction due to the petrified wood used in its construction.
This isolated oasis was purchased by the Petrified Forest National Monument in 1936, and began updating the structure. It would later become the headquarters of the park and service thousands of Route 66 travelers. It closed in 1963 and sat vacant and deteriorating for years. Today, it is fully restored and serves as a museum.
The petrified wood of the Petrified Forest is the “State Fossil” of Arizona. The pieces of permineralized wood are from a family of trees extinct in the Northern Hemisphere today, surviving only in isolated stands in the Southern Hemisphere.
During the Late Triassic period, this desert region was in the tropics and was seasonally wet and dry. In seasonal flooding, the trees washed from where they grew and accumulated in sandy river channels, buried periodically by layers of gravelly sand rich in volcanic ash from volcanoes further to the west. The volcanic ash was the source of the silica that helped to permineralized the buried logs, replacing wood with silica, colored with oxides of iron and manganese.
Landmarks in the park include the Agate House Pueblo, built of petrified wood; the Agate Bridge, a petrified log spanning a wash; the Painted Desert Inn, designated on the National Register of Historic Places, an old segment of Route 66; and the Puerco Pueblo, as well as numerous scenic formations and hiking trails.
Some 225 million years ago, numerous tall trees washed into the floodplain, where a mix of silt, mud, and volcanic ashes buried the logs. The sediment cut off the oxygen and slowed the logs’ decay. Silica-laden groundwater seeped through the logs and replaced the original wood tissues with silica deposits.
Eventually, the silica crystallized into quartz, and the logs were preserved as petrified wood. Later, centuries of scouring floodwaters washed out the arroyo beneath this 110-foot-long petrified log and formed a natural bridge. The petrified log, harder than the sandstone around it, resisted erosion and remained suspended as the softer rock beneath it washed away.
Enthusiastic visitors fascinated by the bridge worked to preserve it by establishing the Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906. Conservationists felt this ages-old natural bridge needed architectural support and, in 1911, erected masonry pillars beneath the log. In 1917 the present concrete span replaced the masonry work.
The current National Park Service philosophy allows the natural forces that create unusual features to continue. If discovered today, Agate Bridge would be left in its natural state.
The ancestors of the modern Pueblo people used petrified wood for various purposes, including tools such as projectile points, knives, and scrapers. Agate House demonstrates another innovative use of petrified wood as a building material for masonry structures. The ancestral Pueblo inhabitants constructed this small, eight-room pueblo about 900 years ago near agricultural fields and petrified wood deposits. The size of the structure and the time necessary to build and maintain it indicates that this was not a temporary residence or field house but, more likely, a year-round residential structure for a family unit. Others have suggested that this structure served solely ceremonial purposes and did not serve as the residence for a family group. Like most structures from this time, it likely remained in use for less than a generation or thirty years.
The Agate House was estimated to be constructed and occupied between 900 and 1200 AD. This determination is based on the ceramic assemblage discovered at the excavation, including coiled utility ware and various black-on-white painted ceramics with a few examples of black-on-red. Most pottery appears to be associated with ancestral Puebloan people (Anasazi), although some of the pottery has southern origins, perhaps associated with the Mogollon.
According to the 1933-34 site excavation report, Agate House was constructed using medium to large pieces of petrified wood, presumably carried to the top of the knoll. The walls were originally constructed of petrified wood held in place by mud mortar and chinked with smaller pieces of petrified wood. The eight-room pueblo is thought to have been occupied for a brief time due to the small amount of cultural debris in the area. Reconstruction of its rooms occurred after archaeological excavation in 1934.
The Agate House is located on a small hill within the Rainbow Forest. Some questions remain about the accuracy of this reconstruction, but it still enables us to envision the daily lives of the ancestral Puebloans. Agate House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
There is a two-mile round trip trail from the Rainbow Forest Museum parking area to get to the Agate House. The first half-mile of this trail is paved and suitable for strollers and various mobility equipment (power and manual). The rest of the trail may be negotiated out to Agate House, but it is narrow in width and has a very rough surface, not suitable for some wheelchairs and other equipment. Upon reaching the Agate House, leave all archeological artifacts for all to enjoy. Also note this dwelling is fragile. Do not sit, stand, or lean on the walls.
Painted Desert Inn
One of the primary landmarks in the Painted Desert is the Painted Desert Inn. The vision of Herbert Lore, a local homesteader, he began constructing the two-story Inn on a high perch overlooking the Painted Desert in 1920. It was first called the “Stone Tree House” because so much petrified wood was used in its construction. In 1924, he registered it as a business and claimed property under the Homestead Act. For almost twelve years, Lore operated the Inn as a tourist attraction. Visitors could eat meals in the lunchroom, purchase Native American arts and crafts, and enjoy a cool drink in the downstairs taproom. Rooms were available for $2-4 dollars per night. Lore also gave 2-hour motor car tours through the Black Forest in the Painted Desert below. It was an isolated oasis in the Painted Desert without electrical connections, so an onsite lighting plant was built to supply electricity. Water was hauled from Adamana, ten miles south on the Puerco River.
The inn was built of wood and native stone in the Pueblo Revival style. Outside, flagstone terraces surrounded by low walls overlooked the desert. The building’s stone walls are more than two feet thick and finished with textured earth-toned stucco. Multiple flat roofs with parapets give the inn its varied massing, and Ponderosa Pine logs pierce the walls, adding play between light and shadow.
In 1932, over 53,000 acres were added to the Petrified Forest National Monument, including much of the Painted Desert, adding scenic value and protecting natural resources. This ultimately helped push legislation to upgrade the national monument to national park status. In 1936, the Painted Desert Inn and other sections of land owned by Herbert Lore were purchased by Petrified Forest National Monument. Work quickly began on updating the Inn’s electrical, plumbing, and heating systems. Guest rooms, a new entryway, a dining room, and a shaded porch were added to the original structure, as well as stained glass ceiling panels, hammered tin chandeliers, and hand-carved furniture.
During the Dust Bowl days, thousands of heartland residents fled west on Route 66 for a better life. Hollywood documented the era in The Grapes of Wrath, which included scenes at the Painted Desert Inn.
In 1940, the inn opened under the management of the Fred Harvey Company, famous in the Southwest for providing hospitality services to tourists and travelers on the Santa Fe Railroad. The inn offered Route 66 travelers food, souvenirs, lodging, and local people with event and meeting space for two years. It closed in 1942 as American involvement with World War II shifted resources away from domestic programs.
In 1947, the Inn reopened, with the legendary Harvey Girls complimenting the Inn with their excellent service in the spotless dining room. That same year, the Harvey Company’s noted architect and interior designer, Mary Jane Colter, was responsible for renovating the facility. Along with overseeing repair work, Colter created a new interior color scheme and made other changes. New plate glass windows to capitalize on the magnificent surrounding landscape were an important addition. At Colter’s behest, Hopi artist Fred Kabotie painted murals on the dining room and lunchroom walls reflecting Hopi culture. The Harvey Girls provided legendary service to the public at the Painted Desert Inn. In 1848, the Painted Desert Inn became the park’s northern headquarters.
After World War II, Route 66 became busier than ever as people began to experience “vacations.” For many, the Mother Road included a stop at the Petrified Forest, and a bite to eat or curio shopping at the Painted Desert Inn
Over the next decade, the inn declined and suffered from structural damage. In 1963, the inn closed, and a new facility opened to house the park visitor center and the Fred Harvey operations. Already suffering from foundation problems, the building sat abandoned for the next 27 years. Only open for periodic events, deterioration continued to occur, and the building was nearly demolished in 1965 and again in 1975. A public campaign helped save the building, which the National Park Service listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The Secretary of the Interior recognized the historic significance of the inn by designating it a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
In 2006, the Painted Desert Inn reopened following its restoration. The inn now appears as it would have in 1949. Functioning as a museum and bookstore today, visitors can again experience the exquisite architectural details and richly colored walls of the Painted Desert Inn. Some highlights include the Trading Post Room, a magnificent architectural space with six hammered-tin, Mexican-style chandeliers, an enormous skylight, and windows overlooking the desert.
The skylight has multiple panes of translucent glass painted in Indian pottery designs. The posts supporting the corbels and vigas are painted in muted colors. The inn still has the original Fred Kabotie murals. A large and stunning mountain lion petroglyph is on display inside the inn. Discovered in the 1930s, the petroglyph is considered one of the finest, most vividly animated, and lifelike depictions of mountain lions in the region.
During the Pueblo I Era, most sites were single-family homes. Still, as soils became exhausted, many sites were abandoned by 1250 A.D. in favor of very large multi-room pueblos close to more dependable water sources. This was likely the case with the Puerco Pueblo in today’s Petrified Forest National Park. Overlooking the Puerco River, this 100-room pueblo built around 1250 surrounded an open plaza. The rooms had no windows or doors, but each could be entered by climbing a ladder and descending through a hole in the roof. At its peak, as many as 200 people lived in the pueblo. The residents of Puerco Pueblo farmed the dry slopes below the village, growing cotton, corn, squash, and beans, while hunters sought game. Artisans created and decorated clay pots.
The pueblo stood one-story high, with 2 to 3 rows of connected rooms. Within the plaza were several rectangular ceremonial kivas. The village was a lively center, even after the abandonment of larger Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon pueblos to the northeast. Over time, however, the persistently dry climate led the people to leave their homes in about 1380. They were thought to have joined with their ancestors; the people of today are the Hopi or perhaps Zuni people. Fragments of their buildings and tools and their petroglyphs on nearby rocks remain to tell us of their existence.
At Puerco Pueblo and many other sites within the park, petroglyphs—images, symbols, or designs—have been scratched, pecked, carved, or incised on rock surfaces. Most of the petroglyphs in Petrified Forest National Park are thought to be between 650 and 2,000 years old.
The pueblo is near the middle of the park. A trail to the pueblo is just a short 0.3-mile loop from the Puerco Pueblo parking area. Petroglyphs can be viewed along the south end of the trail. Do not climb on the boulders or walls or touch the petroglyphs. This trail is paved and does not have stairs, making it suitable for strollers and mobility equipment.
Old Route 66
Route 66 paralleled the railroad in Arizona, generally following the Beale Road and National Old Trails Road.
In the Petrified Forest National Park, old Route 66 bisected the main park highway. Signs directed travelers either north to the Painted Desert Inn and overlook or south to the main petrified wood deposits. Bypassed by a new alignment, which later became Interstate 40, in the late 1950s, today’s route is marked only by the remnants of the raised roadbed, weathered telephone poles, and a park exhibit.
Petrified Forest National Park is the only park in the National Park System containing a section of Historic Route 66. From Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California, this heavily traveled highway was not only a road but also stood as a symbol of opportunity, adventure, and exploration to travelers.
A trip from middle America to the coast could take about a week. For many, the journey was not just across miles but across cultures and lifestyles, from the modest to the exotic. Of course, getting to your destination was important, but the trip itself was a reward. From the neon signs of one-of-a-kind motels to burgers and chicken-fried steaks in the multitude of restaurants, from the filling stations that served as miniature oases to gaudy tourist traps, more than 2,200 miles of open road were magical.
After long hours of travel, this was a special place to take a break, a welcome stop to rest, stretch your legs, sip a cold drink, and admire the view. The Painted Desert Inn welcomed all with an air of hospitality and allure.
Bypassed by a new alignment (now Interstate 40) in the late 1950s, today’s route is marked only by the remnants of the raised roadbed, a lonely line of telephone poles, and a park exhibit marking the old intersection. a tribute to this remarkable American icon.
Gaze down the long road…and listen. You may hear echoes of the past, echoes of Route 66.
Other places within the Petrified Forest National Park are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs and Archaeological District and Twin Buttes Archaeological District.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center provides information, book sales, exhibits, and restrooms. Timeless Impressions, a free orientation film about the park, is shown every half hour. A restaurant, gift shop, gas station, and convenience store are adjacent to the visitor center. A second museum, the
Rainbow Forest Museum provides exhibits of petrified wood, fossils, and displays of prehistoric animals and information, book sales, and restrooms. The orientation film is also shown here every half hour. A gift shop and a seasonal snack bar are located nearby.
Travel through the park is by private vehicle, bicycle, motorcycle, or commercial tour only. The park road, parking lots, and pull-outs are suitable for large recreation vehicles, including those towing smaller vehicles. Off-road vehicle travel is not allowed within the park, including mountain bikes. The park does not have campground facilities, and overnight parking is not allowed.
Be aware that theft of petrified wood results in a fine. Tourists can purchase petrified wood collected legally from private land in several nearby businesses. (As a side note, you might also want to know about the Curse of the Petrified Forest. Read HERE.)
Hiking opportunities are limited. The longest established trail in the park extends for only two miles; the others are one mile or less. Backcountry camping and hiking are allowed by permit only.