Arizona: Petrified Forest and Meteor Crater

A journey back in time to the days of primordial forests and the day a meteor crashed to earth

We left the sleepy town of Holbrook, Arizona, which is not a place one should be sad to leave. Once a rough frontier town – it doesn’t have much more to offer in 2018. Fortunately, only a short drive away is the Petrified Forest National Park. Our children love rocks, minerals and fossils, so to go and look at petrified wood was heaven to them. The first stop was the visitor center, where we get treated to a Ranger talk on the formation of the petrified forest in the late Triassic period, 225 million years ago.

This is great introduction and we follow this by taking the short trail outside we actually get to see the final great act of petrification. Here are the fallen trees of the primordial forest, most likely carried to these spots by a rampageous river. The minerals from the river would have been absorbed by the wood of the trees and overtime what was wood has been mineralized to leave a permanent record on the landscape. The effect of mineralization has created a wonderful kaleidoscope of colours in the petrified wood. There are huge petrified trunks of trees lying all around the trail. Truly wonderful!

The National Park itself is vast – taking nearly an hour of solid driving from the south entrance to the north entrance. En route we make a couple of stops to look at some Pueblo ruins and petroglyphs painted on the rocks. At the North entrance of the park we take the Painted Desert loop, taking us past grand vistas of the colourful desert. Unfortunately the weather is not co-operating and it is also not the best time of day to see the colours ; early morning and late afternoon sun brings out the colours most effectively. We don’t have the time to wait so will have to rely on our imagination to picture this splendid scene – it is time to move on to our next stop.

Our plan was to reach Sedona, Arizona on this day. We set off across the flat and tedious high desert plains. One of the issues with flat plains is that they don’t provide any protection from the wind, which is particularly tiresome (and dangerous) in a relatively light weight, high sided vehicle – oh yes, like a motor home. Well, as chance would have it, a strong afternoon gusty wind kicked up across the desert – throwing up a bit of a dust storm. Of more concern was the impact of strong wind gusts side on to our vehicle as we drove down the road. Also, because of the direction the wind is blowing it was causing the awning (which was furled up) to lift and bash against the side of the motor home – loudly. Not usually of weak disposition in terms of driving conditions, I was struggling to hold a steady course on the road. We decide to pull off at the signs for Meteor Crater Natural Monument where there were services – as we approached the services we passed over a cattle grid which caused the remote brakes to go on in our tow-behind Jeep. We felt this was a message from God is to cut our losses and stop. As luck would have it there was an RV park right next to the service station – so with little hesitation we pulled in for the night and hooked up.

It had been our intention to stop and look at Meteor Crater anyway, so providence had a hand in bringing us to this point. Although it was getting late in the day we still had about an hour to explore the crater so we drove up the visitor center. The approach to the crater passed through the flat desert, with the crater walls rising 150 feet above the plain making it easy to see from miles around. The crater was created about 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch when a nickel-iron meteor about 150 feet across collided with the earth at about 30,000 miles per hour. The impact was devastating, producing a massive explosion equivalent to at least 2.5 megatons of TNT comparable to a large thermonuclear explosion and about 150 times the yield of the atomic bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosion dug out 175 million tons of rock leaving a crater that is 4000 feet in diameter and 570 feet deep. The wind that caused us to stop here had also prevented walking tours along the rim but we were able to go out on to the viewing decks and admire this large dent in the earth’s surface. It is difficult to imagine what it would have been like to been here during the collision – probably deadly. There is a good visitors center here and we found out more about the crater’s history and the nature of the Earth at the time from watching a short video and listening to the staff talk around a large chunk of nickel-iron found in a wash some distance from the crater. Unfortunately, it was late in the day and we didn’t have time to look around the museum exhibits – choosing the gift shop (as always) instead.

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