A better name for the Petrified Forest might be the Petrified Pile of Logs, with its fossilized hunks of ancient trees scattered like kindling across the arid scrubby landscape. But these richly colored petrifactions are plenty impressive close up, and the other half of the park, the Painted Desert, more than lives up to its name, in glowing pastel beauty.
Start at the Rainbow Forest Museum, the visitor center at the southern entrance to the park, where the displays will teach the kids how those petrified logs got petrified in the first place. These 225-million-year-old conifers date from the late Triassic age, when this area was an equatorial tropical forest. The trees fell, were buried in sediment, and then overlaid with volcanic ash, which gradually deposited silica in the trees that replaced their cells with quartz crystals. This unique set of circumstances left a profusion of these immense fossils in the area, which were sliced up and sold for souvenirs at such a rate that, in 1906, the government stepped in to
preserve what was left in this park. A short walking trail behind the visitor center winds around a hillside strewn with logs (4–5 ft. in diameter), giving the children a first chance to examine them up close; across the road, a 1.5-mile loop takes you to Agate House, a ruined pueblo fashioned out of colorful petrified wood.
Once you’re back in the car, head north on the park’s 27-mile scenic road. Several overlooks highlight wonders such as the Crystal Forest (unfortunately, tourists pried the quartz and amethyst crystals out of these logs long ago); the Jasper Forest, petrified trees with their roots still attached; and Agate Bridge, a natural bridge formed by a petrified log. In the hazy blue badlands of the Blue Mesa, chunks of petrified wood teeter on mounds of soft clay that are eroding away beneath them. The Teepees are a lovely set of hills striped with different colors. At Newspaper Rock, you can gaze upon ancient Native-American petroglyphs, with the ruined pueblos of their creators at nearby Pueblo Parco.
Across I-40, you’ll be fully in the Painted Desert section of the park, where a series of eight overlooks lets you admire the breathtaking desert colors, which were caused by various minerals in the mudstone-and-clay soil—iron, manganese, and others—which oxidized at different rates as they were exposed by erosion. It’s a dreamscape of pastels washing over dramatically eroded buttes and mesas, one of nature’s best special effects ever.