Petrified and Painted On Route 66
The Wigwam Motel, quirky rock shops and cement dinosaurs. Yep, these are a few of the former Route 66 landmarks at our next stop near Holbrook, AZ, another town bypassed when I-40 was constructed.
One of these landmarks gained renewed notoriety when Gayle King and Oprah Winfrey did a cross country trip in 2006. Their plan was to stay at the Wigwam Motel. However, when Oprah realized there weren’t enough tepees for her 18 crew production staff, they moved to a nearby hotel. Hmmm, wonder if that was just an excuse?
Although the town suffered a major loss in tourism when the new highway was constructed, two nearby major attractions have always drawn tourists to the area – the Petrified Forest National Park and the adjacent Painted Desert National Park. Although we had booked the OK RV Park in Holbrook for three days, we managed to see both natural wonders in just one day. The fee which is paid at the Entrance Station is $20 for a 7 day pass, but it is free if you have a Federal Senior or America the Beautiful Pass.
What is now the arid dry, desert land of Arizona was once a hot, humid, lush and green prehistoric rain forest located near the equator. During the Triassic Period, 225 million years ago, this was a land of abundant vegetation where dinosaurs and reptiles roamed and fish, clams, snails and crayfish populated the rivers. Giant conifers reached high into the skies. But then the continents drifted and the climate changed, burying the river system, the plants and the animals under layers of sediment. As the trees died or were knocked down by the wind or water, many were buried beneath layers of silt, mud, sand and volcanic ash which protected them from decay. These buried logs soaked up groundwater and silica from volcanic ash that over time crystallized into quartz, slowly bonding with the cells of the tree replicating the organic material in perfect detail. Over millions of years, the forces of wind and water eroded the rock layers and exposed the fossilized plants, animals and pine forest remnants. Looking at the brilliant hues and patterns of yellow, red, black, blue, brown, white and pink created by the different trace minerals (iron, carbon and manganese) in the silica, it’s so hard to believe that these logs were once common trees and made of wood.
That is what we learned at the Rainbow Forest Museum at the southern entrance to the park, off US-180. Here, in addition to visitor information there is a bookstore and a free 20 minute orientation film, Timeless Impressions, which is shown continuously. There were numerous paleontological exhibits including a variety of skeletal displays of prehistoric animals.
The weather during our visit was slightly overcast and cool, perfect for touring this desert terrain. Beware that other times of year will bring very hot temperatures and also crowds, so if possible we recommend visiting during the cooler and less popular times of year.
Not to be missed, behind the Museum is the Giant Log Trail, a .3 mile self guided trail marked with numbered posts that correspond to information found in the Giant Logs Trail Guide. One of the highlights along the trail was “Old Faithful”, a log which measures 35 feet long and weighs approximately 44 tons! Speaking of weight, did you know that petrified wood weighs approximately 160-200 pounds per cubic foot? Heavy stuff!
One marker on the trail points out “badlands”. No, bad people don’t live here, this is an “area of soft rock strata that is cut and eroded into many gullies and irregular shapes where vegetation cannot take hold.” Who knew!
There were several other trails but instead we hopped in the car to drive the loop, a 28 mile road that connected the two parks. Of course, as with every scenic drive, it was slow going because we stopped at each of the scenic vistas along the way. Petrified wood was scattered everywhere but beware it is against the law to remove even a small fragment.
Agate Bridge is a 100 foot long petrified log bridge. Pretty cool! Blue Mesa features a 3.5 mile loop road through vibrant badlands where the landscape is layered with thick deposits of grey, blue, purple, and green mudstones and minor sandstone beds.
At Newspaper Rock there are displays of over 650 petroglyphs, some over 2000 years old. Because they were quite a distance away, they were only viewable through the provided telescope or with binoculars.
The Village on the Rio Puerco River (or Puerco Pueblo, for short) is a single story settlement built of shaped sandstone blocks by ancestral Puebloan people. It was inhabited between 1250 and 1380 and at its peak had over 100 rooms which had no doors or windows in the exterior walls and was home for approximately 200 people.
A one third mile mostly paved loop trail runs through the partially excavated pueblo and has views of petroglyphs. Numerous displays along the way explain what life was like living in the pueblo, what the structure actually looked like, the artifacts discovered at the site and so much more. What we found most fascinating was the summer solstice marker, a boulder featuring a small spiral petroglyph that marks the summer solstice. For a two week period around June 21, a shaft of sunlight is projected onto the boulder and travels down the side to touch the center of the spiral, peaking about 9 am.
But surprise, surprise (we certainly were), not everything here is millions of years old – where Route 66 intersects the park, there is a somewhat rusted 1932 Studebaker sitting on the side of the road. Don’t think that is a remnant from the Triassic Period! Interesting to note that the Petrified Forest is the only National Park that has a portion of Route 66 going through it.
Spectacular views abound driving through the Painted Desert, named for the rainbow of colors ranging from muted lavenders and shades of gray splashed with vibrant colors of red, orange and pink found in the enormous expanse of badland hills and buttes.
Besides the gorgeous scenery, one of the highlights of the drive is the Painted Desert Inn, a national historic landmark which has a very interesting history. The original building known as the “Stone Tree House” was built in 1920, but due to structural damage it was purchased and redesigned in a Pueblo Revival style in the ’30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). At one point it was slated for demolition, but a public campaign helped to save the building. Fortunately in 1987, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark so it is protected.
Today it no longer functions as an inn, but as a museum and bookstore instead. Here visitors are able to experience the exquisite architectural details such as the six hammered-tin Mexican style chandeliers and the Indian pottery designs painted on the translucent glass panes of the skylight. The richly colored walls of the Painted Desert Inn also boast original murals painted by Fred Kabotie, a celebrated Hopi painter, silversmith, illustrator, potter, author, curator and educator.
A large and stunning mountain lion petroglyph is on display inside the inn which was discovered in the 1930’s. The petroglyph is considered one of the finest, most vividly animated and lifelike depictions of mountain lions in the region.
Outside, a trail along the rim of the mesa offers spectacular views of the vast and colorful Painted Desert. Although we could have stood there forever soaking in the scenery, we eventually had to tear ourselves away and drove back to the coach.
Throughout the National Park there are many signs stating that it is illegal to collect or remove any piece of petrified wood from the Park, but there are lots of “rock” shops in the area where you can buy petrified wood acquired from private land owners outside the park. If you have a few hours to spend, our recommendation would be to visit one of the largest “rock” shops in the area – Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Co, a worldwide premier dealer (at least according to their website) of Arizona Rainbow Petrified Wood. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s well worth a visit just to browse! Here there are petrified wood products of every shape and size for sale. Many hundreds (thousands?) of huge logs (some polished, some not) are on display outside in their massive parking lot (it looks like they have enough wood to build their own petrified forest). Inside there’s jewelry, bookends, clocks, tables, spheres, marbles, Christmas ornaments, Navajo pottery, fossils, meteorites and stone carvings! What a treasure trove of mostly natural wonders!
Ever seen a 2.9 million year old fossilized alligator skeleton in a slab of rock? Well, here you can – “Wild Bill” (named for a family friend) is on display in their free museum along with exhibits of fossilized pine cones, extremely rare green petrified wood (the green is from chromium) and samples of the extremely rare Woodworthia (“bumpy” or “dimpled” bark) petrified wood among other things.
Above their workshop at one end of the shop (next to their koi pond) are signs explaining how they collect the wood (they have rights from a land company), cut it (a 14″ slice can take up to 2 to 3 hours), grind it (can take 6 hours or more) and polish it (10 to 30 minutes). Wow, quite a process! Interesting to note that Jim Gray’s has sold wood to the Smithsonian, the White House, and museums all over the world!
Sadly, Holbrook was our final stop in Arizona where we spent over six awesome weeks touring the southern portion of this beautiful state, ogling the many spectacular natural wonders found here. But now it was time to slowly start heading east. Wonder where Route 66 would take us next?
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