During the Triassic Period, northeastern Arizona’s Colorado Plateau was near the equator on part of the prehistoric supercontinent Pangea. Due to the different climate, there existed massive trees and rivers all over the area. Some trees fell into the surrounding floodplains, or rivers, and were buried in mud, becoming petrified over time. The process of petrification is where the cellular structure of organic materials is replaced by minerals. The most common of these minerals are quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide, and each give petrified wood different colors. There are fossils of three different extinct tree species in the park: Woodworthia, Schilderia, and Araucarioxylon.
Millions of years later, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the region a national monument. Congress passed legislation in 1962 to make it a national park, calling it Petrified Forest National Park, and in 2004 to expand the park’s boundaries further in order to protect more of the area from fossil thieves and better preserve the environment. Today, the park spans 221,390 acres, with over 50,000 acres of designated wilderness where the National Park Service allows recreational activities like camping and backpacking.
Visitors can get information and backcountry permits at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, which also hosts an orientation film, bookstore, restaurant, walking trail, and some hands-on exhibits. The Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark is two miles from the north entrance of the park and hosts museum galleries, visitor information, sweeping desert vistas, and access to the Wilderness Area and other trails. Rainbow Forest Museum is another park attraction similar to the visitor center, but it is more focused on museum exhibition. It doesn’t have a restaurant but does host complete paleontological exhibits with prehistoric animal skeletons.
Although Petrified Forest National Park is most immediately known for fossil remains, the region continues to be home for a wide variety of native wildlife. There are hundreds of animal species in its ecosystem, including tiger salamander, toad, porcupine, coyote, bat, Kit Fox, pronghorn, snake, woodrat, box turtle, and golden eagle. Many unusual migratory species like pelican and other shore birds occasionally can be seen in the park. The majority of the wildlife is crepuscular, meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk. The park recommends visiting in the early morning or evening hours for a much better chance of observing wildlife.
The park also has over 800 archeological and historic sites exhibiting at least 12,000 years of human presence. There are petroglyph sites ranging in age from 600 to 2000 years ago. The earliest types of artifacts found at the park are stone spear points and arrowheads crafted by Paleoindians, the first people to have traveled to the region who arrived during the Pleistocene period at least 11,500 years ago. These earliest people were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Eventually, people began permanently inhabiting the area to farm corn. They constructed pit structures and pueblos, and made pottery. Ruins of these later structures and ceramic artifacts can still be seen by visitors at sites throughout the park.