Through Trees of Stone

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Troy Hendrick

The wind howls across the Arizona plains as I aim a Honda Gold Wing 1800 toward the Petrified Forest National Park on US 180 east. I lean the 850-pound machine into the gusts to hold a straight line. The Painted Desert spreads before me - a vast horizon of cracked earth and colored sandstone - and the cloudless sky is tinged with a red film of dust dispersed by the dirt-devils swirling the air. Dozens of these frenetic mini-tornadoes gyrate like belly dancers across the plains. They are the only things moving between the road and desert horizon.

Nature often reveals some of her most treasured secrets in environments like this. For millennia, wind, water and sun have scoured, gouged and scorched the land in this mid-eastern section of Arizona. Nothing less than these titanic forces (certainly more exertion than man and his machines have ever mustered) could have managed the digging required to expose the Petrified Forest and its incredible tonnage of logs turned into quartz beneath 225 million years of dirt.

One road bisects the length of the narrow north-south strip of 93,000 acres. It is easily accessible from I-40 on the north side, and is about an 18-mile drive on US 180 from Holbrook (west of the park) to the southern tip. Entering the park from the south, I pay the five-dollar motorcycle admission fee, and proceed to the park's Rainbow Forest Museum on the southern end.

In the Late Triassic Period, this land was a vast floodplain. Streams and rivers crossed the region, and strange dinosaurs roamed the landscape. The Late Triassic (225 million years ago) coincided with the beginning of the dinosaurs' reign on earth. The types of animals that thrived in the pine and fern forests nearby were amphibians and crocodilian reptiles. Fossilized remains of many of these creatures are on display in the Rainbow Forest Museum. The story of the area is told both through the exhibits in the museum and on a short nature trail just outside, rambling past some of the largest and most dramatic of the petrified logs.

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