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Petrified Forest National Park/USA

Introducing Petrified Forest National Park

The 'trees' of the Petrified Forest are fragmented, fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semidesert grassland. Sounds boring? Not so! First, many are huge – up to 6ft in diameter – and at least one spans a ravine to form a natural bridge. Second, they're beautiful up close, with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood shimmering in ethereal pinks, blues and greens. And finally, they're ancient: 225 million years old, making them contemporaries of the first dinosaurs that leapt onto the scene in the Late Triassic period.

The trees arrived via major floods, only to be buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Groundwater dissolved the silica, carried it through the logs and crystallized into solid, sparkly quartz mashed up with iron, carbon, manganese and other minerals. Uplift and erosion eventually exposed the logs. Souvenir hunters filched thousands of tons of petrified wood before Teddy Roosevelt made the forest a national monument in 1906 (it became a national park in 1962). Scavenge today and you'll be looking at fines and even jail time.

Aside from the logs, the park also encompasses Native American ruins and petroglyphs, plus an especially spectacular section of the Painted Desert north of the I-40.

Petrified Forest National Park, which straddles the I-40, has an entrance at exit 311 off I-40 in the north and another off Hwy 180 in the south. A 28-mile paved scenic road links the two. To avoid backtracking, westbound travelers should start in the north, eastbound ones in the south.

A video describing how the logs were fossilized runs regularly at the Painted Desert Visitor Center near the north entrance, and the Rainbow Forest Museum near the South Entrance. Both have bookstores, park exhibits and rangers that hand out free maps and information pamphlets.

The scenic drive has about 15 pullouts with interpretive signs and some short trails. Two trails near the southern entrance provide the best access for close-ups of the petrified logs: the 0.6-mile Long Logs Trail, which has the largest concentration, and the 0.4-mile Giant Logs Trail, which is entered through the Rainbow Forest Museum and sports the park's largest log.

A highlight in the center section is the 3-mile loop drive out to Blue Mesa, where you'll be treated to 360-degree views of spectacular badlands, log falls and logs balancing atop hills with the leathery texture of elephant skin. The short Blue Mesa Trail leads scenically into the badlands. Nearby, at the bottom of a ravine, hundreds of well-preserved petroglyphs are splashed across Newspaper Rock like some prehistoric bulletin board. Hiking down is verboten, but free spotting scopes are set up at the overlook.

There's more rock art at Puerco Pueblo, but the real attraction here is the partly excavated 100-room ruins that may have been home to as many as 1200 people in the 13th century.

Just north of I-40 is a Route 66 interpretative marker, where you'll find a map of the whole Mother Road. Further north you'll have sweeping views of the Painted Desert, where nature presents a hauntingly beautiful palette, especially at sunset. The most mesmerizing views are from Kachina Point behind the Painted Desert Inn, an old adobe turned museum adorned with impressive Hopi murals.

Kachina Point is also the trailhead for wilderness hiking and camping. There are no developed trails, water sources or food, so come prepared. Overnight camping requires a free permit available at the visitor centers.

There are no accommodations within the park and food service is limited to snacks available at the visitor centers. The closest lodging is in Holbrook.