Located in Northeastern Arizona, just off Interstate 40, you'll find the strangely beautiful land of the Petrified Forest. Established as the Petrified Forest National Park (Box 2217, Petrified Forest, AZ 86028, 928-524-6228) by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the Petrified Forest encompasses more than 200,000 acres of desert land that contains the world's largest concentration of petrified wood. The hardened, colorful wood on display at the Petrified Forest is a result of a natural process that began millions of years earlier.
Almost 225 million years ago, the area that is now the Petrified Forest in Arizona lay close to the equator, where giant tropical conifer trees grew in abundance. When these trees died, their remains were carried away by stream waters, and then buried under layers of sand, mud, and volcanic ash. The trunks, buried deep and completely cut off from oxygen, remained untouched except for the water that flowed over them. Over time, the silica in the water caused the wood to become crystallized, producing the stunning, colorful fossilized logs that are preserved at the Petrified Forest.
The Petrified Forest, then, isn't exactly a forest in the conventional sense. If you visit the Petrified Forest, don't expect to find acres of tall, stone-hardened trees. Expect to see a land of fossils, a place where time is etched into the layers of rock. The hardened, brilliantly colored logs and trunks have remained intact for millions of years. And they aren't alone: fossils are found here all the time. Along with trees, also buried in the Petrified Forest are the fossilized remnants of ancient plants, animals, and insects. Even more exciting, paleontologists have discovered fossils from what could be the very earliest types of dinosaurs.
Located in the same park as the Petrified Forest you'll find the rich, densely layered colors of the Painted Desert. The so-called Chinle Formation, a 200 million year old expanse of layered rainbow-colored badlands, is the heart of the Painted Desert. The clay-rich soil of the Chinle Formation is striped with swaths of blue-grays, pinks, reds, creamy whites, and even near-black hues. The best time to look out across the painted desert is in the early morning or at sunset, where the multicolored land shimmers in the waning light.
If you plan to visit, the Petrified Forest is located near the town of Holbrook, Arizona, about a 3.5-hour drive from Phoenix. The park is open year-round, with the exception of Christmas Day. Park hours vary according to the season, so make sure to check hours before visiting. The boundaries of the Petrified Forest were recently expanded to from 95,553 to over 200,000 acres. There are two visitor centers: the Painted Desert Visitor Center (on the north end, accessible from I-40), where you can view an orientation film and visit the gift shop, and the Rainbow Forest Museum (at the south end of the park), which features interpretative exhibits. There is a $10 entrance fee for cars, and a $5 fee for walk-ins and bicyclists.