12 Unexpected Facts About Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park

Mature male tourist standing against blue cloudy sky at Petrified Forest, national park, Arizona, USA
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For such an arid, stark landscape, Petrified Forest National Park has a remarkably dissimilar past. The southern Arizona park sits in a desert and receives just about 10 inches of rain a year. Quite the contrast to when this was once a humid, lush swampland inhabited by giant reptiles—and even dinosaurs.

While the landscape today appears desolate and barren, Petrified Forest National Park has a fascinating story to tell. To really appreciate the park’s history and get the most out of your visit, you just have to know where to look.

The Park Protects One of the World’s Largest Petrified Forests

The park contains one of the world’s largest collections of petrified wood. Other noteworthy areas are located in North Dakota, Egypt, and Argentina.

The petrified wood here has been dated to be between 210 and 218 million years old and can be found exposed in pockets of the park in what are known as ancient “forests.” 

Petrified Forest Was Created to Prevent Theft 

As people began exploring the American Southwest, word spread about a strange place where the trees had turned to stone. Curious visitors began exploring the remote area and while touring began plucking souvenirs as keepsakes to take home or to show their friends.

By the late 1800s interest in petrified wood had skyrocketed, prompting the Arizona Territorial legislature to petition the U.S. Congress in 1895 to protect the resources. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created Petrified Forest National Monument. The park was elevated to national park status in 1962 and protects 221,390 acres of land. 

There Is a Conscience Pile of Returned Petrified Wood 

Just like that episode of The Brady Bunch when Peter takes a tiki idol from Hawaii and bad luck follows, similar claims have been made by those who have removed petrified wood from the park.

As the myth goes, anyone who takes fossilized wood past park boundaries will be struck with a curse and years of bad luck. Hundreds of people have mailed back chunks of wood with apology letters giving some credence to the curse claim, as documented in the book "Bad Luck, Hot Rocks." Park officials have named the stack of returned rocks, the “conscience pile.”

Petrified Wood Is Mainly Quartz

Petrified Wood detail
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Visitors are often surprised by how colorful petrified wood is.

Practically pure quartz, the sharp rainbow-like coloring and intricate patterns are the result of the minerals and imperfections found in the wood. Pure quartz is white, while manganese oxides form blue, purple, black, and brown, and iron oxides give the fossilized wood tones of yellow, red, and brown.

No, the Logs Weren’t Cut by Humans

Giant Log at Petrified National Forest, Arizona
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While it appears that the long logs and trees found in these former ancient forests were cut into segments with a chainsaw to showcase the magical colors, this is not the case. Quartz is in fact extremely brittle and the logs have simply fractured over time with the uplifting of the Colorado Plateau.   

Dinosaurs Once Lived Here 

The park is a paleontologist’s playground. Ancient Arizona was once a quiet tropical prehistoric swampy rainforest where dinosaurs and large reptiles roamed among ferns, horsetails, and cycads.

Petrified Forest has plant and animal fossils that date to the Triassic Period, over 200 million years ago. 

The Park’s Badlands Date to the Dawn of Dinosaurs

Erosion And Colors Of A Teepee In Petrified Forest National Park

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The Painted Desert’s colorful badlands, mesas, and wind-sculptured buttes also date to the Chinle Formation of the Triassic Period.

Shaped over time by erosion, the colorful layers of limestone, mudstone, and volcanic ash lay visible throughout the park.  

There Are Thousands of Archaeological Sites in the Park

Early inhabitants certainly left their mark on the landscape. More than 1,000 archaeological sites, from pit houses and one-room shelters to above-ground pueblos, have been discovered. Shards of pottery, arrowheads, and other tools have also been unearthed.

It’s believed the area was abandoned around 1380 after a prolonged drought. 

Newspaper Rock Contains More Than 650 Petroglyphs

Indian Petroglyphs Newspaper Rock Petrified Forest National Park Arizona
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The park has several sites containing petroglyphs, but the largest concentration can be found at Newspaper Rock. More than 650 separate markings can be seen on the rock faces here.

Park officials say the petroglyphs were created by Puebloan people living near the Puerco River between 650 and 2,000 years ago. 

Petrified Forest Is Home to Abundant and Diverse Wildlife

Lizard in Petrified Forest National Park

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While you might not spot much, the park has a ton of wildlife. Coyotes, mule deer, jackrabbits, a variety of mice, and even bobcats live here. There are also snakes, collared lizards, and over 200 species of birds. 

The Park Preserves an Old Section of Route 66

Old rusty and abandoned car in the Arizona desert USA
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Route 66 has a history all to itself. Perhaps the most notorious of roads, it stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles and was known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road. A portion of the old road, decommissioned in 1985, is preserved in the park.    

Petrified Forest National Park Closes at Night

Petrified Forest is the only national park in the system to close every evening. There are no campgrounds in the park. The gates are closed well before dark in an effort to prevent the theft of petrified wood.