After two wonderful days of hoodoos, we departed Bryce Canyon and began the 90 minute drive to our hotel in the small town of Escalante. I’d planned some extra time for the drive knowing that we’d be following Highway 12, which is a scenic byway. We would also be driving past three state parks, though we didn’t have time to visit all of them. After some debate, we decided petrified trees sounded neat and quite different from the red rocks we’d been surrounded with for the past few days. So off we went.
I can say with confidence that we made the right decision. This place was so unexpectedly amazing and we spent the entire afternoon here. And maybe that makes it seem like we totally nerded out over petrified wood (we did)… but once you see the photos, I think you might understand our fascination.
But first, a mini geology lesson. Petrification is a process in which organic matter – in this case, large trees – dies and is immediately buried (usually by silt from a flood or mudslide or ash from a volcanic eruption), thus blocking the oxygen supply and essentially halting decomposition. Over the next thousands of years, the minerals in the silt seep into and gradually replace the structure, preserving it and turning it to stone. In many of the pieces of wood we could still see the tree rings, perfectly preserved in the process.
Uniquely, the minerals present in this location lent various colors to the wood during the petrification process, resulting in the most colorful collection of petrified wood I’ve ever seen. The many shades of red, orange, and yellow are caused by iron in various states of oxidation. The greens and blues are the result of copper, chromium, and cobalt. And the pinks, purples, and blacks are imparted by my favorite mineral (yes, I have a favorite mineral): manganese.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park is located on the native land of the Ute (Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱) and Southern Paiute (Nuwuvi) (source), who called the region the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow. Between the rocks and the petrified wood, it’s easy to understand the inspiration for this name.
For most of the last 135 million years, these trees have remained buried in the layers of dirt and rock. Gradually, erosion has exposed many of the pieces. Today, the park is home to 5.5 million tons of petrified wood! Some of the largest pieces, including a mostly-intact tree trunk, are visible adjacent to the parking area. But to see most of it (and, quite honestly, the best of it), you’ll have to hike. So we grabbed our gear and set off.
The Petrified Forest Trail begins with a 200 foot (61 m) climb to the top of the mesa adjacent to Wide Hollow Reservoir. Don’t forget to bring the pamphlet they hand you at the entrance station, as it corresponds to numbered posts on the trail. Prior to reaching the petrified wood, this trail guide explained some of the things we encountered along the way.
The trail is a lollipop loop; at the beginning of the loop the pamphlet instructed us to go right. Shortly thereafter, we reached the first collection of petrified wood. A few large pieces sat next to the trail, broken into a a variety of shapes and displaying most of the colors of the rainbow. It was at this point that we began to understand just how neat this place is. We crouched down to view each piece closely, examining the shapes and colors and attempting to capture close-up photos with our phones.
About a third of the way around the loop is the junction with the Trail of Sleeping Rainbows, a 0.8-mile (1.2 km) loop to more petrified wood. On this particular afternoon we seemed to have been the only ones who took this trail… which was great for us but a shame for everyone who skipped it because there were hundreds – literally hundreds – of pieces of petrified wood on this one. It was everywhere, including in the middle of the trail. All shapes, sizes, and colors. It took us an hour to hike this section because we rarely made it more than about 20 feet (6 m) before spotting more pieces and stopping to examine them.
(Note that the pieces are not marked or labeled on this trail, so you have to be willing to search for them yourself. It’s not terribly hard, they’re everywhere.)
After completing the Trail of Sleeping Rainbows, we returned to the Petrified Forest Trail to walk the other half of the loop. A few more pieces of petrified wood could be seen on this section of trail before it dropped back down to the parking lot.
We ended our visit at the small visitor center. There wasn’t much to learn here that we hadn’t already learned from the trail guide. But I did enjoy seeing their collection of petrified wood pieces that people had stolen and then returned to the park along with letters of apology. It restored a little bit of my faith in humanity. Legend has it that theft of petrified wood will bestow a curse upon you; the tales told in the letters certainly corroborate this.
Moral of the story: please don’t steal any petrified wood. But if you’re driving through this area, definitely take the time to stop and visit this park. It’s 100% worth it.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: located off Utah Highway 12 about 1 mile (1.6 km) west of the town of Escalante. Follow the signs; you initially pass through some farmland which might make you think you took a wrong turn, but you didn’t. The park is back behind this land
- Fees and passes: $10/car for a 1-day pass; Utah State Parks passes are accepted
- Hiking: This is a hiking park. If you don’t want to hike, you’ll only be able to see about 15 pieces of petrified wood just by meandering around the exhibits near the parking lot. To see what we saw will require, at minimum, hiking the Petrified Forest Trail (1.2 mile/1.9 km loop with 200 feet/60 m of elevation gain). I highly recommend also hiking the 0.8 mile (1.2 km) relatively flat Trail of Sleeping Rainbows to see the largest concentration of petrified wood
- Where to stay: there is a lakefront campground in the park (reservations recommended) and there are various lodging opportunities in the town of Escalante. We stayed at Canyon Country Lodge and would recommend it
- Other: Please, please, please don’t take home any petrified wood, even small pieces. It might seem like no one would miss them or it’s not a big deal, but if every visitor took home a piece of wood, the park would be stripped bare very quickly