The first time I heard the name “Petrified Forest,” I pictured an actual forest with upright trees made out of stone and, I don’t know, like fossilized pine cones littering the floor or something ridiculous like that. I don’t mind saying that I was an adult at the time, either, because let’s face it the phrase “petrified forest” is kind of misleading. Though I suppose “Petrified Logs Scattered Around on the Ground” is not really a super compelling name for a national park.
California has its own petrified forest — it’s in Napa County — but I’m sorry to say that it’s less impressive than the one in Arizona. I’ve been wanting to visit Petrified Forest National Park for a couple of years, since I wrote a 250-word blurb about the park’s Agate Bridge in a longer story about natural bridges, in fact, Agate Bridge was the primary reason I planned to drive more than 2,300 miles across the American southwest with three children in a 9-year-old minivan. (Waiting for Mom to pop into the comments again and tell me off for being crazy).
The broken, scattered logs that make up the petrified part of Petrified Forest National Park are 225 million years old, which means the last time they were upright was around 25 million years before the Jurassic. So these now-stone trees pre-date dinos like Stegosaurus and Brachiosaurus by 25 million years, and they predate T-rex and Velociraptor by a couple of hundred million years more. In fact, the prehistoric creatures that occupied the Petrified Forest before it was petrified looked more like crocodiles than like most dinosaurs. Science is only aware of two actual dinosaurs that lived in the area during that time, and they were roughly the size of greyhounds.
So these trees are old, and when you look closely at them you get a strange sense of seeing something that you can’t ever really see. Because the wood isn’t wood anymore — it’s a bizarre facsimile of what it used to be only sort of grotesquely beautiful, given that its mold was a once-living thing that died and decomposed millions of years ago. Like fossil bone, petrified wood isn’t wood, it’s the minerals that seeped into the wood over time, replacing all of the organic matter that was once there. The logs you see in the forest today contain manganese, lithium, and copper, which give them an almost peacock look.
The conditions that preserve wood in this way are uncommon, which is what makes the Petrified Forest so remarkable. There are thousands of fragmented logs scattered across the 350 square mile park and beyond, too, indicating that those perfect conditions happened here, in this now-arid place, across a broad stretch of land and over a long period of time.
Also, Agate Bridge is pretty cool in person. Maybe not “plan your whole trip around this” cool, but cool.