Upon entering the Rainbow Forest for the first time, visitors are usually awestruck when seeing the vast amount of petrified wood laying on the ground. The sheer immense size of the hard stone logs is enough to captivate the imagination for hours while strolling around. In the neighboring Blue Mesa area, only scattered pieces of broken petrified wood can be seen strewn about, while in the Rainbow Forest a visitor literally cannot walk more than a few feet without tripping over the ancient trees!
When following the hiking trails into the Rainbow Forest the landscape initially looks as if it was an old growth forest that was completely chopped down by overzealous lumberjacks. In reality, a modern lumberjack would have a tough time chopping through these logs, because the mineralized ancient trees are as hard as a rock. The environmental conditions necessary for creating the Rainbow Forest occurred way back in the age of the dinosaurs. It may be difficult to imagine, but what is now an arid harsh desert environment was once a land of lush forests and swamps eons ago.
A possible combination of extreme climate change, solar flares or any number of cataclysmic events caused most of the large reptiles and forests in this region to die off within a relatively short time span. As the gigantic trees fell to the ground, they landed in mineral rich water and mud, which acted as a preservative. Over a long period of time the minerals saturated the wood and replaced the organic matter on a cellular level. The result of this process is petrified wood, which is as hard as calcite or quartz.
The Rainbow Forest is unique in the fact that the petrified wood has laid in its original state on the ground surface since the age of the dinosaurs. Some of the petrified wood was buried under solidified dunes and volcanic ash that has eroded away fairly recently on a geologic time scale. Since the petrified wood is much harder than the Painted Desert ground surface, erosive forces have created unique landscape features, like petrified wood topped hoodoos and petrified wood natural bridges. The geological oddities are easy to spot in the Rainbow Forest area and it only takes a short hike to experience these rare natural wonders up close and personal.
The main hiking trails in the Petrified Forest National Park are paved, so those who have mobility challenges can experience this field of study. The dirt back country trails are a bit more challenging and they do vary greatly in length. Staying on the trail is part of the rules of the park, because this is a sensitive desert environment. One of the best Rainbow Forest hiking trails for viewing the remnants of the ancient forest is the Long Logs Trail. Along this trail, large pieces of petrified wood can be seen for as far as the eyes can see. Entire whole logs of petrified wood lay in state and some of the logs can only be described as being gigantic when compared to trees in this modern age.
As always, pack plenty of water and be sure to stay hydrated when visiting the Petrified Forest National Park, especially during the extreme heat of summer. Carrying a dust mask and goggles will help when the winds kick up during the spring season. It also pays to watch your step and not reach under rocks, because there are rattlesnakes and scorpions in this region.
I first visited the park as a kid back in the early 1970s and just recently as well. Nothing much has changed in the Petrified Forest in the mean time, except for a lot of the small pieces of petrified wood have been stolen by law breakers. Picking up pieces of petrified wood to take home as a souvenir is a federal offense, but if one is patient, plenty of trading posts that sell petrified wood for cheap can be found just outside the park.
The Rainbow Forest experience certainly is timeless and a visit is guaranteed to create memories to ponder over for a lifetime. Temperature wise, spring is the best time to visit this park, but the monsoon rains of summer bring a few cool days as well. After a brief rainstorm, the vivid colors of the petrified wood are revealed and this truly is a spectacular sight to see. The Petrified Forest National Park offers plenty of unique outdoor experiences, so be sure to plan a lengthy visit!
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