Some History: "December 2nd, 1853 - Camp 76. Quite a forest of petrified trees was discovered to-day, prostrate and partly buried in deposits of red marl. They are converted into beautiful specimens of variegated jasper. One trunk was measured ten feet in diameter, and more than one hundred feet in length. Some of the stumps appear as if they had been charred by fire before being converted to stone. The main portions of the trees have dark brown color; the smaller branches are of a reddish hue. Fragments are strewn over the surface for miles - Lt. A.W. Whipple".
While seeking a route for the first transcontinental railroad, the 1853 Whipple Expedition "discovered" the Petrified Forest. He named Lithodendron Wash (Latin for "stone tree") after the prominent petrified logs.
In 1857, Lt. Edward Beale established a wagon road along the 35th parallel that roughly followed the corridor plotted by the Whipple Expedition.
"September 3rd, 1857 - Arrived at Puerco at 8am and found no water. Passing a narrow neck of land toward the Xara and some very rough country toward the east we reached a high table land covered with beautiful grass, where we encamped. No wood. We found on the left of the trail on the table land, a huge petrification, apparently a large tree of probably three feet in diameter - Lt. E.F. Beale".
Lieutenant Beale's diary references to the Rio Puerco and Rio de la Xara (which is now known as the Dead Wash) places them within present day Petrified Forest National Park. These are two of the earliest recorded reports of petrified wood in the region. There is evidence of Spanish exploration through the region pre-dating Whipple and Beale, but no known recorded mention of petrified wood. The Sitgraves Expedition of 1851 along the Lower Colorado River also has no known recorded observation.
On December 8th, 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt created the Petrified Forest National Monument. Promotion to national park status occurred on December 9th, 1962. The park has evolved and grown over the years, withstanding the removal of tons of crystals and petrified wood by souvenir collectors and profiteers. In 2006, the Petrified Forest National Park celebrated its centennial year.
The Hikes: The Rainbow Forest Loop combines three of more popular hikes within the Petrified Forest National Park. Start from the Rainbow Forest Museum parking lot located 2 miles north of south entrance at Hwy 180 (or 26 miles south of the north entrance at I-40).
Giant Logs Trail: This 0.4 mile loop features some of the largest and most colourful logs in the park. "Old Faithful" located at the top of the trail is almost ten feet across the base.
Long Logs Trail: This 1.6 mile loop features the largest concentration of petrified wood in the park. Explore the ancient log jam at the base of gray-purple badlands.
Agate House Trail: This 2.0 mile out-and-back trail goes to a small restored pueblo archeologists believe was occupied for a short time about 700 years ago by seasonal farmers or traders.
Behind the Rainbow Forest Museum is the Giant Logs TH. Stop inside the museum to pick up a self-guided hiking pamphlet. As you exit the museum to the rear, keep right and follow the trail in a counter-clockwise loop. During the Triassic Period between 205 and 240 million years ago, 200 foot giant coniferous trees forested the foothills of an active volcanic mountain range. A series of eruptions toppled the trees and combining with floods from melting snow and associated mud flows, the logs were pushed onto the flood plains. Layers of volcanic ash buried the logs preventing any decay. Over time, silica water permeated the logs promoting a fossilization process known as petrification. Trace minerals soaked into the wood along with the silica. Iron minerals create bright mustard, orange, reds, ochre, and black colours within petrified wood. Manganese minerals produce blues, purple, brown, and black hues within petrified wood. Other trace minerals add to the colour palette seen in the Giant Logs.
Having completed the 0.4 mile loop back to the museum, proceed to the east end of the parking lot and cross the bridge over Jim Camp Wash. The Long Logs/Agate House TH will appear on your right as you cross the bridge. The trail will cross a relatively open plain to the east, heading towards the base of a ridge of gray-purple badlands. About 1/4 miles from crossing the bridge over Jim Camp Wash, the trail will branch left and right. Choose the left branch heading in a generally northerly direction as it weaves through a veritable log jam. This is the aptly named Long Logs Trail. A dusting of snow from the previous night helps bring out the colours. No need to ponder why this is called the Rainbow Forest.
After traveling about 1.7 miles along the Rainbow Forest Loop, you pass a small kiosk on the top of a slight prominence and the trail will merge onto an out-and-back path leading to the Agate House ruins. It's a quick 0.3 miles to reach the ruins. Agate House represents a relatively unique pueblo ruin... it's constructed from petrified wood! Archeologists believe this 8 room pueblo was occupied for only a short time since no kiva is associated with the site. During a 1934 archeological survey, the ruins were partially reconstructed... built under standards no longer acceptable by the National Parks Service and may be inaccurate.
It's a 1 mile trip back to the Rainbow Forest Museum parking lot. Head back along the out-and-back trail crossing the open plain. If you have time, travel north up the road from the parking lot about 5 miles to check out the Crystal Forest.
Summary: This was my first visit to "PEFO" and considering the amount of prehistoric "eye-candy", a return visit will soon be on the agenda. I did receive one tip about visiting the park I'd like to pass on. Most traffic enters the park from the I-40 at the north entrance. If you are planning a full day visit, start at the south end via Hwy 180. This will also put you strategically at the Painted Desert vistas at the end of the day to catch hopefully a spectacular sunset. The paved, open roads at PEFO also provide a biking opportunity although the 28 mile one-way ride may present some logistical challenges. Check out the park website at http://www.nps.gov/pefo for more information. Enjoy!
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.