Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Petrified Forest

We were into the second week of our whirlwind tour of the southwest when we arrived at the Petrified Forest National Part on May 21st. After lunch at a deceptively labeled 'museum' (in truth, a curio-shop where one can legally buy petrified wood and other souvenirs) just outside of the park, we passed through the south gates and made our first stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum. Acting as a hub for several short yet impressive trail loops, the visitor's center at this location (one of several throughout the park) also houses facilities such as restrooms and water fountains, as well as a small exhibit on the site during the Triassic period onwards, when the dinosaurs lived, and the logs which give the museum its name (more on those in a moment) are estimated to have been deposited. The museum is well constructed, using a combination of in-situ aspects such as a diorama, and in-context aspects such as comparisons between different types of dinosaurs to talk about the animals which at one point inhabited the land. It is worth noting, however, that the exhibit is very wordy, much more so than many kids would likely have patience for. Seeing as children are the group most easily enraptured by the dinosaurs in question, I would suggest toning down the amount and complexity of the text to make it easier for them to understand.
Moving outside the center, we followed the short Giant Logs trail, which showcases some of the biggest logs of petrified wood in the park. Although there are no openly interpretive signs along the trail, there are markers are a number of locations, corresponding to a trail guide available inside the center. The trail was short and easy, and the logs along its path – giant pieces of driftwood from a bygone age, which were buried and turned to stone by the soil around them – are definitely worth the time to see. Simply knowing that the rocks in question were once wood millions of years ago is impressive enough, but the dazzling array of colors in some of the cross-sections is truly breathtaking.
Finished with our walk around the trail, we moved on north in the park, to the Puerco Pueblo stop. Rather than focusing on the petrified wood of the park, the stop is a look at former human habitation of the park, namely a large Pueblo built around 1250, the remains of which are illustrated above ground by a 'romantic ruin', a reconstruction of the foundation around a foot high to show the size of the building. The stop is also decorated with petroglyphs, including some which are believed to have been used to mark the change in seasons.

Finally, after the Pueblo, we moved on to our final stop, the main Painted Desert Visitor's Center at the north end of the park. We spent a short time browsing the exhibits and gift shop in the center (of particular interest was a fake petrified log with interactive drawers containing small exhibits, something significantly more kid-friendly than the exhibits on the other end of the park), before being taken into the back and given a tour of the labs by one of the museum's staff, a Preparator who works with fossils. This was an interesting – and sadly rare – look at the park's role as a research institution. On the tour we saw the collections of the park, as well as the kind of work that goes into conserving them and preparing them for research. The park houses around 90 Type Specimens – the scientific term for the first confirmed example of a new species found. In addition to fossils, they also house archaeological collections, both of which are available to scholars who wish to research them.
A small piece of their collections.
Although the inevitable draw of Petrified Forest National Park is likely to remain the beauty of the wood-turned-stone which the park is named after, the fossils and archaeological collections of the area deserve attention too. It would be nice to see some more attention to the park's role as a research institution in their exhibits, as well as slightly more kid-friendly amounts of text, but overall the park is doing a quality job in its mission to preserve the heritage of the petrified forest, its fossils, and the Native American remains of the Painted Desert, and educate the public about the same areas.

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