A land of fallen giants, forever preserved in stone, the Petrified Forest National Park captured my imagination from the first time I heard of it as a child, as I fingered an odd piece of rock on my grandmother's treasure shelf. Specimens at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History furthered my fascination. When my husband and I were planning our recent trip to the Southwestern US, we knew we needed to see this unique national treasure.
Millions of years ago, a storm ripped through an ancient Triassic forest. Enormous trees were felled, tumbling giant trunks and branches into a roaring river. Downstream, the tumult slowed, and some of the logs became stuck in the silty bottom. A log jam formed, piles of jumbled wood that went for miles. More silt swirled around the logs, eventually covering them so no trace remained. But the trees did not just disappear.
The wet silt delayed their decay, giving time for silicon-rich water to seep into the wood. The silicon came out of solution and combined with oxygen to form quartz crystals, replacing the organic tissues of the trees. Mineral salts transported along with the silicon created a wide range of colors. Over time, these huge logs were transformed into stone, multicolored formations of quartz that reproduced the trees' structure, sometimes even at a cellular level.
Eons passed, and what was once lush forest gave way to the dry expanses of the American Southwest.
Shifting sands have exposed the fossilized remnants of this long-ago forest. It's a surreal experience, walking among these giant stone logs. They jut from the landscape like fallen trees on the floor of an old growth forest, but the forest has long since been spirited away.
Instead of lying in cool green shadows, the trees sparkle under a blazing blue sky, with scattered sagebrush and cacti for companions.
Trees have such individual characters that I shouldn't have been surprised at the uniqueness of each piece of petrified wood. Some resemble rough logs, complete with a bark-like deposit of minerals on the outer surface. Broken surfaces may reveal the grain of the wood, even showing growth rings in cross-cut sections.
In some pieces, gaps in the wood are now filled with sparkling crystals of quartz. Lighter pieces dazzle in the sunlight, and others shimmer in earth-tones of ochre and terra cotta. The pale gray-blue and purple colors of the chromium and manganese in "rainbow" petrified wood are especially striking. Each piece of petrified wood is a natural work of art, some very true-to-life, and others quite abstract.
Visitors to the park are surprised to learn that petrified wood has been found in every state in the US, with significant deposits in other countries also. The thing that makes the Petrified Forest so unique is the sheer volume of petrified wood in one area, with large logs placed just the way the river dropped them more than 200 million years ago. Vast amounts of petrified wood are visible on the surface, from small chips to giant logs.
The accessibility of this natural treasure is also its downfall. Over the years, visitors to the park have pocketed "just one or two" pieces, and more daring vandals have carted off entire boulder-like tree sections. The amount of petrified wood in the park is still remarkable, but it's a fraction of what it once was. Efforts have been made to limit poaching, with visitors being asked to protect this resource for future generations by reporting any violations.
Is it illegal to own or to purchase petrified wood? No, but it is illegal to take any from within the boundaries of the national park land. In fact, it is illegal to collect rocks or other materials from all national (and most state) parks. This deposit of petrified wood extends far beyond the park boundaries, both above and below ground level, so legally collected or mined pieces are available for purchase in any number of local rock shops.
We had a wonderful time exploring the rock shops in the town of Holbrook as well as those near the entrance to the park. In fact, we spent so much time examining polished specimens inside the shops as well as climbing around their outdoor piles that it was past noon by the time we made it into the park proper. That wasn't the best timing, to be hiking around during the hottest part of the day, but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm.
Decorative and functional uses for petrified wood extend beyond the traditional "pretty rock paperweight." Some stump-like pieces are large enough to sit on. Others may have holes drilled into them for use as planters. Polished slabs, including some really striking specimens (priced in the thousands of dollars), are made into tables and benches.
Larger chunks, both polished and unpolished, make great decorative accents for garden beds and containers. Our favorite store in town (Jim Gray's) takes this decorative use to extremes, with a large indoor water feature built from big chunks of petrified wood. The water spills over an extensive fall into a large koi pond ringed with trunk sections of petrified wood, creating a stunning display.
I would have loved to get a petrified "stump" to perch on in my garden, but the cost of shipping it home would have doubled the purchase price of any big piece. We contented ourselves with smaller specimens and took pictures of things we'd buy if we ever won the lottery! Like many such items, petrified wood is least expensive when you're right at the source. We saw polished pieces for sale at gift shops in Grand Canyon National Park at double the price they'd be in Holbrook.
The Southwest is a rock-hound's paradise, rich in mines, canyons, and geological formations found nowhere else on earth. If you have a chance to explore its beauties, make time to experience the wonders of the Petrified Forest National Park, where ancient forest giants lie frozen in sparkling stone.
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Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.
Petrified Forest National Park Visitor Center displays, 2009
Petrified Forest: A Story in Stone, by Sidney Ash. ISBN# 0-945695-11-X