Petrified Forest National Park, Day 2

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 26, 2022

We made our first visit to Petrified Forest National Park on March 25, 2022, restricting our time to only the northern, smaller section of the park. That part doesn’t have much in the way of petrified wood, but it has plenty of awe-inspiring views. We returned the next day, with Gunther, to experience the southern side, and we did see some fossilized wood. And how!

Petrified Forest National Park, which measures about 350 square miles, receives about 600,000 visitors per year. That number, while impressive, makes it just the third-most-visited national park in Arizona, following Saguaro National Park in Tucson (1 million visitors per year; Nancy and I were two of those people a couple of weeks earlier) and the most-visited park in all the land, Grand Canyon National Park (4.5 million). Incidentally, Rocky Mountain National Park in north-central Colorado is just behind Grand Canyon, at 4.4 million visitors per year. If you’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park in the last 20 years and felt a bit cramped, it’s probably due to 4.4 million other people visiting a park measuring 415 square miles.

Wind and water erosion in the northern Arizona desert does some interesting things to rocks, like resting the one on the right side against the one on the left.

But we’re here to talk about rocks. A piece of petrified wood isn’t really wood any longer: it no longer contains any organic material and it is most definitely a rock. The process of petrification takes several important factors, including a tree, water, sediment, and time. Lots and lots of time.

Many of the rocks at Petrified Forest National Park represent trees that were quite large when they were living, about 220 million years ago. Here we see a park visitor with her dog observing a massive rock. (It’s Nancy, with Gunther, who appears ready to return home to The Goddard but we’d only been at the park for about 30 minutes at this point.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The scientists believe that the trees in Petrified Forest National Park were alive between 210 and 227 million years ago. At that time, the Late Triassic Period, the current area of the park was just north of the equator – in fact, it was close to where Costa Rica is today. The land was much different then: covered with forests of immense trees as well as large rivers and other wetlands. Huge amphibians and early dinosaurs roamed the forests and dwelled in the rivers. (Although there were many dinosaur species in the ensuing years, famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops wouldn’t appear until the Late Cretaceous Period, almost 160 million years later.)

There’s still a lot of detail from the former trees to be seen in their petrified logs. While it appears that the logs have been cut with a chainsaw to achieve those smooth sides, they’ve simply cracked along the crystalline structure of the quartz. That usually happens because of erosional processes: either geologic uplift over millions of years, or supporting materials below the log being removed through relatively quick wind or water action.

Many of these coniferous trees (there are nine species identified in the park; all are now extinct) grew to be enormous: some may have grown to 200 feet in height. When the trees died they lost their branches and bark, then eventually toppled over after being undercut by a river. If the tree fell into the river, it may have eventually been covered in sediment being carried by the waterway. This relatively rapid burial is critical to later petrification: the water sealed the dead tree away from both oxygen and bacteria, which helped prevent decay. That delay gave time for silicic acid in the rivers to percolate throughout the tree. This process chemically altered the wood into a mineral called opal that still retained the tree’s fine features, like the grain of the wood, or indications of where branches once sprouted from the trunk.

This is one of the biggest, if not longest, pieces of fossilized wood in Petrified Forest National Park. “Old Faithful” is 35 feet long and weighs about 44 tons. It’s also one of the relatively few logs that retained part of its root structure, which measures 10 feet across today, during the petrification process. In 1962, lightning struck and fractured this log. The National Park Service used mortar to reattach the pieces and added the retaining wall seen near the base of the former tree – a process that, in the name of resource management, the NPS would probably not undertake today. Old Faithful is located just west of the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center near the park’s southern entrance.
Here we see a park visitor with her faithful dog, standing next to the base of Old Faithful. (It’s Nancy, again, with Gunther, again; the dog appears to have perked up somewhat.)
While perhaps not quite as spectacular as the views we enjoyed in the northern part of the park the day before, there were still great vistas to enjoy on the Giant Logs Trail near the visitor center. One can see erosional forces still at work on the rocks at right.

Converting the wood into opal took only a few thousand years. Further layers of sedimentation over millions upon millions of years would cover the logs with tons upon tons of soil and rock. This process recrystallized the logs, converting the opal into quartz and a few other minerals. Over many other ensuing millions of years, erosion and geologic upheaval brought the logs back to the surface of the earth to once again see the light of day – this time as petrified wood.

Now that you know the factors involved in creating petrified wood, can you name the states in our country that contain it? The answer is below – keep on scrollin’!

The silicic acid in ancient waterways percolated through fallen logs, converting the trees’ organic material into opal. This closeup photo shows that the minerals retained the features of the trees, such as the grain of the wood.

The visitor center at the southern end of the park, which is part of the original monument created in 1906 (it was made a national park in 1962), contains some interesting fossils of both trees and animals. The fossilized remains of many amphibians and some dinosaurs dating to the time that the trees were alive have been discovered in the park (and the process for creating animal fossils is much the same as that used to create petrified wood). The museum also exhibits some handwritten letters: apparently, some visitors over the years were unable to withstand the temptation (and federal law) to leave the petrified wood where it lay within the park. Upon their return home with a fossilized wood souvenir, some of them inexplicably fell into bad fortune, such as personal or business relationship issues, and returned the rocks via mail, with an apologetic letter, to the national park.

Some of the many trails within the southern part of the park feature these helpful fossilized logs to help keep hikers on the path. Walking beside them gives an idea of just how tall these trees were.

After going to the visitor center and museum, and walking the Giant Logs Trail behind the building, we decided to go on a longer walk to see some more rocks. The Long Logs Trail, located a short distance from the visitor center, is so named because some of the petrified wood is more than 180 feet in length.

We saw this horned lark while on the Long Logs Trail. It had a very pretty song. We had never seen one before, and were happy to watch and listen to it for a while. (I write “we,” but Gunther couldn’t possibly have cared less.)
More than 1,200 archeological sites, indicating prior human habitation as long as 12,000 years ago, have been found in the park. The Native Americans arrived first as nomadic cultures, then over the centuries began to occupy the area on a seasonal basis. Eventually, the cultures lived in what is now the park year-round. A short spur from the Long Logs Trail leads to Agate House, a building that was reconstructed by the NPS to represent an actual seven-room dwelling built by ancient Native Americans, using the only construction material available, petrified wood, about a thousand years ago. Although centuries of weathering caused the original structure to collapse, park service staff used the same rocks to rebuild the house.
Realizing it’s a reconstruction, Agate House is still very pretty and was probably fairly resistant to the elements when it was first built.

About the states that contain petrified wood: were you able to name them? If you named all 50, you’re correct. Although each U.S. state contain some amount of petrified wood, northern Arizona is able to display one of the largest concentrations in the nation because of the geologic upheaval processes that brought the logs to the surface of the earth.

This particular log caught my eye because of the many colors it features. It’s simply spectacular. The different mineral composition within the petrified wood contributes to the varied coloration. The rocks can contain natural quartz, which is nearly clear and translucent, as well as varying amounts of iron, copper, manganese, and chromium, all responsible for the reds, yellows, purples, and greens. I would never take any rocks from Petrified Forest National Park. It would have meant that someone else wouldn’t have been able to see this one. However, if I was going to take a rock home, this would have been the one. But we have a weight limit, for towing safety purposes. on The Goddard. Also, I like my luck the way it is.

Petrified Forest National Park, Day 1

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 25, 2022

Progressing east and west, Interstate 40 divides Petrified Forest National Park into northern and southern sections. The interstate generally follows the path of historic U.S. Route 66, which connected the midwestern United States to the country’s west coast in the first half of the 20th century. Although Route 66 stretched more than 2,200 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, Petrified Forest is the only national park with former segments of the historic highway within its boundaries. The area south of the interstate, much larger in size than the northern part, contains most of the petrified wood specimens in the park. The northern area, however, boasts incredible roadside vistas of the Painted Desert and a sizable national wilderness area. Nancy and I visited the northern part of the park in late March. Gunther stayed with Rusty in the Goddard, but Nancy and I would enjoy the dog’s company when we returned to the park the following day.

We briefly stopped in at the northern visitor center, which was undergoing significant renovation at the time, then proceeded to drive along a route that included a number of overlooks of Petrified Forest National Park.

I decided to use my 14mm wide-angle lens for taking pictures the day we visited the Painted Desert. I got it a couple of years ago to primarily take pictures of the night sky but thought its properties would help capture the feeling of the vast open landscapes of Petrified Forest National Park. There is a disadvantage to using this lens, though: it’s not automatic, so the aperture, ISO, and other settings all must be set manually. I’m no good at any of that. Many of the photos I took were over- or under-exposed, and I had to make manual adjustments using a couple of pieces of photo editing software.

One gets a different perspective of time and distance when visiting this part of Petrified Forest National Park. The different colors in the gullies in the center of the photograph represent 200 million years of sediment being laid down by rivers and then being eroded by later rivers, and the rock formation on the horizon at left, Pilot Rock, is nearly seven miles away. The horizon in the center is much further – perhaps a hundred miles.
This view of a deep basin formed from erosion is from one of the first overlooks on a road that goes through the Painted Desert. One can see for, literally, a hundred miles to the horizon. They’re not visible in this photo, but we could see many, many tractor-trailers traversing Interstate 40 on the other side of this huge basin. Sharp-eyed viewers will, however, note a distinct lack of petrified wood in this view; that’s because most of the petrified logs are well south of this part of the park.

Petrified Forest National Park contains only a small part of the Painted Desert, which stretches across almost 8,000 square miles of northeastern Arizona. The colorful rocks, primarily mudstone and sandstone, of this region are called the Chinle Formation. Deposited from 227 to 205 million years ago during the Late Triassic Period while most of the land area on Earth was on the single supercontinent Pangaea, the rocks have been buried, lifted, and eroded during Pangaea’s breakup and shift into today’s major continents.

There are still living trees to be found in Petrified Forest National Park, but they’re nothing like the towering conifers that grew 200 million years ago when the area was located at about present-day Costa Rica. The park’s overlooks are built on a layer of basaltic rock that was ejected from volcanic eruptions only between 16 and five million years ago, forming a protective layer that is much more resistant to erosion than the sedimentary layers of rock below.

During the Late Triassic Period, the land comprising Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park was located just north of the equator and supported a much different environment (different enough, for example, to support a forest of 180-foot-tall trees that would later become petrified). As Pangaea divided, the land mass migrated north and the land itself underwent massive changes.

The different colors seen in the Painted Desert are quite impressive. Large river systems flowed through this area hundreds of millions of years ago, depositing many layers of gravel, silt, and sand. The different colors of the layers are created by varying mineral content of the soils, which have been exposed through geologic movement as well as water and wind erosion.

The Chinle Formation is itself divided into five members: Mesa Redondo, Blue Mesa, Sonsela, Petrified Forest, and Owl Rock. Each member represents a transition of the land from wet to dry environments over millions of years: the Mesa Redondo, the oldest layer and therefore the one underlying the rest of the formation, consists of red sandstone originally laid down 226 million years ago, and the youngest, Owl Rock, includes pink and orange mudstone at the top of the formation that was deposited 207 million years ago.

Here we see a visitor to Petrified Forest National Park (it’s Nancy) contemplate more than 200 million years of geologic change that resulted in these magnificent views.

Older rock formations in the Painted Desert are at the bottom of the geologic column, and the layers of rock grow younger in age as the elevation increases. The colors of these rocks come from the iron they contain. Drier climates allow the minerals to become exposed to oxygen, causing the iron to rust and develop distinctive red, brown, and orange colors. When the climate is wet, moisture essentially covers the sediments and prevents their oxidation. Those layers are colored blue, gray, and purple.

I think a lot of people might underestimate just how wide-open the American West can be. This picture, taken from the Pintado Point overlook at the national park, gives an idea of how far one can see in the northern Arizona desert. For instance, Turkey Track Butte is nearly 23 miles away from this viewpoint but is still distinctly visible. Behind the butte, the San Francisco Peaks are barely discernable, but they’re more than a hundred miles away. Pilot Rock is the highest point in the park, and Lithodendren Wash is a seasonal stream.

Nancy and I took a short hike along the rim of the basin, and one of the highlights of that walk was a stop at the Painted Desert Inn, which was originally built as a respite for travelers on Route 66. The highway passed just a short distance south of the building, and a spur road brought visitors to the inn for refreshments.

Records are unclear regarding exactly when the building was first constructed, but descendants of the original owner say he built it in the late teens of the 20th century. The Painted Desert Inn had several owners during the course of its life as a place of rest for Route 66 travelers, but the U.S. government bought the building and four surrounding square miles of land in 1936. Petrified Forest National Monument had been established 30 years earlier, and the area became a national park in 1962.

The interior of the Painted Desert Inn now serves as a visitor center for the Painted Desert as well as a museum with artifacts from the inn’s heyday. It’s all very impressive and you’re going to have to take my word on that because none of the pictures I took inside turned out.

Despite my photographic foibles, we really enjoyed this first visit to Petrified Forest National Park. I grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado, and I know long, uninterrupted distances. They are nothing compared to what can be seen in northeastern Arizona.

We’d see more of the park, and a little bit of actual fossilized wood, the next day. (Actually, we’d see a lot of fossilized wood. So. Much. Fossilized. Wood.)

Tuzigoot National Monument

March 19, 2022 – Clarkdale, Arizona

We enjoyed a one-week stay in Camp Verde, Arizona, in mid-March of 2022, which allowed easy access to two National Park Service (NPS) sites. The first was Montezuma Castle National Monument, a cliff dwelling on which construction began a thousand years ago and which we visited on a couple of consecutive weekday late afternoons. The second was Tuzigoot National Monument, another ancient Native American dwelling site located about 20 miles northwest of Camp Verde. Tuzigoot was declared a national monument on July 25, 1939. Nancy and I visited the monument on a pleasant but overcast Saturday in mid-March.

Look closely at the top of the tower: that’s a group of about a dozen people. Tuzigoot is a big place.

Like the nearby Montezuma Castle, the Sinagua Native Americans began construction on Tuzigoot pueblo about a thousand years ago. Also like Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot is misnamed: it’s a corruption of the Tonto Apache phrase “Tú Digiz,” which means “crooked water” and refers to a bend in the nearby Verde River. The pueblo, located on a hilltop with 360-degree views for miles around the area, featured 110 rooms.

The proximity to Montezuma Castle, and to other pueblo communities like those in New Mexico’s Aztec Ruins National Monument and Bandelier National Monument, as well as Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, points to the fact that the residents traveled frequently between the dwellings and traded ideas and goods with each other. Again, much like the other pueblos in the area, the dwellings were abandoned beginning in the 1300s most likely due to a variety of reasons (depletion of natural resources, climate change, possible threats from other native cultures) rather than just one. Also, the Hopi, who count themselves among the Sinagua culture’s descendants, believe their forebears were naturally nomadic and didn’t like to stay in one place for too long.

The Tuzigoot National Monument experience begins with the site’s visitor center, which is itself a historic structure (although not as historic as the pueblo, since the visitor center dates only to 1936). The visitor center was built as a museum by local Clarkdale residents, who also helped professional archeologists with the initial excavation of the Tuzigoot pueblo. The center contains actual artifacts – not reproductions – that were found during the site’s excavation in the 1930s.

Here we see a Tuzigoot visitor (it’s Nancy), freshly armed with knowledge gained from the visitor center as well as a pair of binoculars, ready to begin her 1/3-mile trek to the pueblo. The center is a really cool building, both on the inside and the outside.

The visitor center is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a collection of 3,158 objects, not all of which are on display. The collection includes ollas (large pottery pieces serving as bowls or baskets), woven baskets, projectile points, and jewelry.

The visitor center has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Tuzigoot pueblo as well as from other ancient communities. Men and women from Clarkdale logged more than 34,000 hours excavating and conserving more than 150 pieces of pottery. These pieces, acquired back in the day by trading with natives from neighboring pueblos, date from the years 800 to 1375.
I really enjoyed these twig figures that represent mammals – they date from 4,000 to 2,000 years ago, but you probably read that. They’re each about four to six inches wide.
This example of a reconstructed wall from the pueblo shows how thick the structures were. That NPS flyer, placed helpfully by a visitor (me), is 8.25 inches wide. As anyone who’s ever built a pueblo knows, thick walls make for good insulation. Summer temperatures in the Verde Valley reach into the 90s, and wintertime lows commonly dip into the 30s.
We were happy to have some excellent birdwatching opportunities at Tuzigoot. This lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) was singing a happy tune just outside the monument’s visitor center. These may be the smallest finches in the world: males generally range from 3.5 to 4 inches long and weigh between a quarter ounce and four-tenths of an ounce. Much of their diet consists of dandelion seeds.
The visitor center also has a nice native plant collection. This is a specimen of ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which translates to “stay far, far away” in Spanish (not really). Although it looks like a cactus, it’s genetically related more closely to tea and blueberries (really). Ocotillo can grow up to 30 feet tall and is sometimes planted as a living fence.
Desertbroom (Baccharis sarothroides) is a flowering shrub native to the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Tea made from steeping the twigs helps alleviate pain from sore muscles. The plant is rich in compounds that reduce cholesterol and serve as an antioxidant. However, there’s also evidence showing that ingesting the compounds has its share of negative side effects so don’t go drinking that tea just yet.

The Tuzigoot site was first described by Anglo-Americans in the 1850s but wasn’t professionally excavated for nearly a century after that. Following the departure of the Sinagua, centuries of neglect, along with countless rain- and snowstorms, freezing temperatures, and the desert heat, left the pueblo in severe disrepair. The site was first excavated in the early 1930s and Portland cement was used to stabilize the rocks. Unfortunately, that material can, over time, damage the original rocks used in the buildings. In the late 1990s, researchers began to replace the Portland cement with mortar that is a better match with the bonding materials that were used a thousand years ago during initial construction.

This is from the top of the highest tower in the pueblo, looking southeast. The trees just on the other side of the meadow indicate where the Verde River flows. A couple of visitors to the left of the fence on the right side of the image provide a sense of scale. The pueblo was built on a hill that’s 120 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.
Nancy and I are fond of pointing out signs like this, which are necessary for exactly one reason.
This rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) was also happily singing, but on the rocks of the pueblo. They are also a very small bird, about 5-6 inches long and weighing half an ounce. Rock wrens are known for laying down a pathway of small stones outside their nests, which are located in rock crevices or in tree stumps.
Tuzigoot visitors are allowed to enter some of the rooms. This one allows access, via a steep set of stairs, to the top of the tower shown in the first photograph. The ceiling shows the viga-and-latilla (large logs crossed with perpendicular smaller logs) ceiling that also served as the supporting floor for the upper story.
Looking southwest from the high tower of Tuzigoot, the town of Jerome, Arizona, is visible from the top of the pueblo. Five centuries after the Sinagua left Tuzigoot, Jerome was founded at this location because of the nearby hill featuring a large capital letter “J.” I’m just kidding with you right now: the town was founded there because of the presence of immense amounts of copper underneath it. The copper mines have since played out. In 1930, Jerome had a population of close to 5,000 people and it now has around 500 residents. Also note the snow on the nearby mountains; Jerome is about 100 miles north of Phoenix and lies at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

The 190-mile-long Verde River, which flows to the north and east of the Tuzigoot pueblo, drains an area of almost 6,200 square miles. The Verde flows just a few feet from where our campsite was in Camp Verde, which derives its name from the river. It eventually empties into the Salt River east of Phoenix, which in turn flows into the Gila River west of the city. A nice trail leads north from the Tuzigoot visitor center to a natural area called Tavasci Marsh (named after the family that once owned a dairy there). About 10,000 years ago the marsh was part of the river but it has since been separated through erosion and other geological forces to become a separate, but connected, wetland. There were, hundreds of years ago, many marshes in the Verde Valley. They’ve since been drained for human development and pasturelands, and today marshes are very rare in Arizona. The trail is a half-mile walk to an observation deck that overlooks the marsh, and there are more opportunities for birdwatching and plant appreciation.

I really like this plant, which we’d also seen at Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis), and its pretty red berries were used by Native Americans to create an intoxicating beverage.
Sparrows aren’t generally thought of as especially attractive birds (I disagree), but the black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) is definitely an exception. These desert natives are 4.5 to 5.5 inches long and weigh about half an ounce. Black-throated sparrows are extremely well-adapted to their desert habitat (they’re also known as desert sparrows in the southwest); while they get a lot of their moisture from water sources during wet times, during dry periods they derive almost all of their necessary moisture from eating insects. This handsome sparrow was hanging out near the trail to Tavasci Marsh.
It wouldn’t be a visit to a Sonoran Desert site without seeing the strawberry hedgehog cactus. They just have ridiculously long thorns compared to their body size.
This is Tavasci Marsh, one of the few remaining wetlands of its type in Arizona. Nearly 245 species of birds have been documented in this riparian area and the marsh attracts plenty of other wildlife – none of which happened to be visiting during our time overlooking the area, but that’s totally alright because we saw plenty of other birds on the trails during our visit.

Tuzigoot National Monument is a fine example of the diversity of ancient Native American pueblos. As conserved by the National Park Service, the monument is a great opportunity to not only learn about its former residents, but to also see some great natural attractions.

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