Nature, geology, archaeology, paleontology and even architecture meet at this high-desert park.
Stretching for miles on both sides of Interstate 40 and located near the town of Holbrook in Northern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is a high-desert geologic treasure chest. You’ll see loads of petrified wood, not to mention eye-popping views of The Painted Desert, which sweeps through the park. Two visitor centers — the Painted Desert Visitor Center on the north and the Rainbow Forest Museum to the south — offer exhibits, books and gifts, limited food service and restrooms. Both sides of the park are connected by the 28-mile-long Main Park Road, which winds past viewpoints, trailheads and other attractions.
Get up close to petrified logs by wandering along trails in the park’s southern section. The Petrified Forest was formed from these ancient trees, given the scientific name Araucarioxylon arizonicum, and have morphed from wood to almost solid quartz, taking on colors from iron, carbon and manganese. The Crystal Forest, Giant Logs and Long Logs trails loop past petrified wood deposits, huge logs and even an ancient log jam. Interested more in ancient fauna than flora? The Rainbow Forest Museum has paleontological displays of prehistoric animal skeletons.
With the park’s emphasis on nature, it might surprise some that architectural treasures also abound. On the south side, the remains of a 100-room compound occupied more than 600 years ago by the Ancestral Puebloan people can be seen at Puerco Pueblo, along with nearby petroglyphs. It’s one of numerous archaeological sites in the park that also include Agate House, an eight-room pueblo built of petrified wood and occupied between 1050 and 1300.
On the north side, the Painted Desert Inn dates to the 1920s and has been updated over the years by the likes of National Park Service architect Lyle Bennett, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Fred Harvey Company’s lead architect Mary Colter, who tapped noted Hopi artist Fred Kabotie to paint the inn’s murals. Today, the National Historic Landmark offers Petrified Forest history exhibits and, in summer, an ice cream counter. Recently deemed a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Painted Desert Visitor Center complex was designed in 1958 by Richard Alexander and noted modernist Richard Neutra — one of the leading proponents of International Style. The simple glass and steel materials, low profile and clean lines of the complex epitomize midcentury modern style.