Tiny brown bits—fragments of massive petrified trees—coat a valley floor parted by the meandering Blue Mesa Trail. Right below you, a pyramid-shaped mound rises. Striped with pale purples, gray, and white, it stands out to you but only for a second. Your attention is then drawn to the expansive badlands in the background. Bigger mounds, hills, and buttes, with even more bands of colors, rise and fall along the horizon, and you’re quickly reminded how special and expansive this place is. Known for its ancient geologic remnants and fossilized trees that are so hard only a diamond-coated saw can cut through their sparkling cores, the Petrified Forest National Park is a vast desert area which spans over fifty thousand acres across the Navajo and Apache Counties of northeastern Arizona.
The park earned its name for its fossils of trees that mostly come from the Late Triassic period about 220 million years ago. Back in that time, this region was a plain area located in a subtropical region where rivers deposited sediments, including trees that had fallen into their streams and tributaries. Many of these trees were quickly covered with sediments which essentially protected the trees from deterioration and preserved them for millions of years.
The fossilized trees themselves—consisting mostly of huge colorful trunk segments—are definitely a worthwhile attraction at this national park, but what really makes the Petrified Forest a special place and unlike any other is the myriad multicolored badlands. These colorful badlands are full of mesas, buttes, and hills, and are a by-product of an extraordinary geologic event known as the Chinle formation, which created rock formations full of deep layers of sediments that were deposited over a span of millions of years. These layers are usually distinguished by their color and composition, and, like the rings of an exposed tree trunk, provide a historical record book for Arizona’s brilliant geologic landscape.
For example, the Blue Mesa Member layer is approximately 225 million years old and contains an assortment of colorful deposits including gray, blue, purple, and even green, while the Petrified Forest Member consists of reddish and brown layers, and is estimated to be roughly ten million years younger than the Blue Mesa Member. These remarkable rock layers, and a few other layers that fall in between, such as the Sonsela Member and the Owl Rock Member, were, over time, uplifted along with the Colorado Plateau about sixty million years ago, and eventually exposed and eroded into the unforgettable badlands we see today.
The sedimentary layers found in the badlands are made up of a few different types of rocks, such as claystone and mudstone. The bentonite clay, however, a product of altered volcanic ash, is arguably the most notable substance in the badlands hills region. This soft clay can actually expand up to seven times its size when wet, and, when it dries, it contracts into a crusty surface resembling elephant skin. This expansion and contraction makes it virtually impossible for vegetation to grow on the badlands terrain and is one of the primary reasons for the rapid erosion of these hills. However, the erosion seen in the badlands area of the Petrified Forest seems to have played a trick on us all. The Bidahochi formation, composed mostly of volcanic and lake bed deposits, is about 190 million years younger than the Chinle formation, yet, to the surprise of many geologists over the years, lies on top of the Chinle layers in certain places. Apparently erosion completely washed away the layers from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, creating a phenomenon known as “unconformity,” an occurrence which means that, in certain places of the park, such as Nizhoni Point, there’s actually 190 million years of geology missing before your very eyes!
The best way to see this park depends on how much time you have to explore. If your time is limited to just an hour or two, and you’re in the southern part of the park, you might consider visiting the Rainbow Forest Museum, watch the well-done short film on the park, and perhaps squeeze in a quick visit to the Giant Logs or Crystal Forest. You then might make your way onto the twenty-eight-mile-long scenic drive on the acclaimed Blue Mesa Road and see as much as you can. This magnificent drive includes great views of the Jasper Forest, the Tepees, Newspaper Rock, and the Blue Mesa via the 3.5-mile Blue Mesa Loop Road.
Alternatively, if you’re in the northern section of the park, I recommend that you stop by the Painted Desert Visitor Center and perhaps even the Desert Inn National Historic Landmark. Also try to see as many of the views as you can in the Painted Desert section because they are truly inspiring, especially the Kachina Point Overlook, one of the most captivating vistas in the entire park. However, to best appreciate the impressive terrain at this park, take advantage of one of the many hikes offered by the park.
There are two main trails that will offer you the most spectacular scenery of the convoluted terrain of the badlands region. The Painted Desert Rim Trail is an easy one-mile (round-trip) loop trail. This unpaved trail is set in a way that offers sweeping views of all the surrounding badlands and grasslands as well. As you work your way through the trail, you’ll notice the stark contrast between the red- and orange-colored hills and the flourishing vegetation on the rim. And one of the nice things offered along the trail are interpretive panels that offer a great education on how all the marvelous land formations came to be.
The second option is the Blue Mesa Trail, which is a steep path that descends sharply into the bluish-gray striped badlands of the Blue Mesa. From afar, the hills resemble mounds, but, as you approach them, their peaks quickly rise, and you gain a sense of scale for how large these formations really are. Along this trail as well, there are plenty of interpretive panels for you to get a better understanding of the surroundings. If you pay close attention to the ground and the unique terrain beneath your feet, you will likely find fossils dating back millions of years. However, be cautioned that, as tempting as it is, you cannot pick up the fossils without running the risk of a major fine.
A number of other trails offer unique opportunities to see the fossilized wonders at this park, such as the Giant Log Trail (only .4 miles round-trip), as well as the Puerco Pueblo and Agate House Trails that offer sights of ruins dating back nearly seven hundred years ago. And don’t forget that there are great backcountry hiking opportunities here as well, but take sensible precautions knowing that you’ll be off on your own in a barren land area that is extremely remote. Venturing off to the backcountry on a hike of this nature really does require the proper amount of skill and experience. Permits for backcountry hiking are only required for overnight adventures.
- After rains the colors in the badlands are most vibrant.
Cover Photo: Andrew Kearns.