The Petrified Forest National Park is ideally located right off of I-40 between Albuquerque and Flagstaff. It is two parks in one; on the northern end it has amazing views of painted desert and as you drive south the desert is dotted with more and more pieces of petrified wood. We are always a bit leery about touring a park with our motor home and towed car attached, but this park is spacious and lightly visited today. No problem parking at every scenic spot. And at the southern end of the park we came upon a free campground, associated with a gift shop. We are camped next to a teepee and a pen full of cattle. Outside our door giant chunks of petrified wood mark the perimeters of the site.
This area has ben enjoyed by tourists long before we got here. The Santa Fe railroad tracks go right through the middle of the park. Today an average of sixty trains pass by every day. Route 66, the famous road that took travelers from Chicago to Los Angeles, also brought people through the area. The Painted Desert Inn was one of a number of hotels built to house visitors and is a noteworthy historic destination today.
The painted desert was picturesque, but many travelers had never seen petrified wood before, even though we were told that every state in our country has some. Millions of years ago trees on the edge of eroding riverbanks fell into the water and were carried to swampy lowland. The trees became submerged in the water and buried under volcanic ash sediment rich in silica. The silica began to replace the wood until the logs were turned into stone. Iron oxide and other minerals stained the silica to produce a rainbow of color. From a distance the trees look like they just fell over and broke apart yesterday.
Early tourists went nuts when they came to this area. They dynamited the logs since conventional lumbering tools could not cut the stone. They used the petrified wood in the construction of new buildings and polished it for jewelry and souvenirs. Even today when the park is regulated and patrolled, it is estimated that visitors cart off about a ton of the petrified wood a month. It still feels like there is so much here. It is hard to imagine how the area looked when the white man first came upon it. The campground gift shop sells petrified wood souvenirs that have been legally taken from private lands. Hopefully, that will reduce the temptation of park visitors to "just" pick up a little piece.