You are here

National Park Geologic Sites Draw Raves and Rants


Is Petrified Forest National Park really boring beyond endurance? NPS photo.

National Park System units or administrative areas dominate the recently released Smithsonian list of “The Ten Most Spectacular Geologic Sites” in America. Meanwhile, Yahoo! Travel has rated a geology-themed national park as one of “America’s Most Over-Rated Tourist Attractions.” Now that is a mixed bag!

Smithsonian considers these to be the ten must-see geologic sites in the continental United States (National Park Service-administered sites are boldfaced):

1. Grand Canyon (AZ)
2. Yellowstone National Park (WY/MO/ID)
3. Niagara Falls (NY)
4. Meteor Crater (AZ)
5. Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (WA)
6. La Brea Tar Pits (CA)
7. San Andreas Fault at the Carrizo Plain (CA)
8. Mammoth Cave National Park (KY)
9. The Ice Age Flood Trail [sic] (WA/OR/ID)
10. Lava Beds National Monument (CA)

It’s easy to understand why fully half of the slots on the Smithsonian list are accounted for by places that are in the National Park System or administered by the National Park Service (in the case of Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail). After all, the bar is set very high for admittance to the National Park System. No site or area is supposed to make the cut if it isn’t truly exceptional in the national frame of reference.

This leaves us to wonder why Andrew Harper over at Yahoo! Travel has gone out of his way to single out Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park as one of America's most over-rated tourist attractions. This is what Mr. Harper has to say about visiting Petrified Forest:

From the north entrance of the park off of Interstate 40, a roughly 25-mile driving route meanders south among a spare expanse of rocks and sand, until you find yourself on Highway 180. Then you drive back up to Interstate 40 and continue on your way, an hour closer to the grave.

Hard to mistake the intent there! As diss-ing goes, this one is about as cruel as it gets. You can imagine what Mr. Harper has to say about Fisherman’s Wharf, Wall Street, Plymouth Rock, the Alamo, Hollywood, Bourbon Street, and RMS Queen Mary. These sites and Petrified Forest are all places that leave Mr. Harper “underwhelmed” or “exhausted.”

I’m curious to know whether these feelings are shared by Traveler readers who’ve visited Petrified Forest and the parks on Smithsonian’s list. Are the five NPS-administered sites on the Smithsonian list really the very best geologic sites in the Park System? Is Petrified Forest really a place that leaves visitors underwhelmed and disappointed?


Niagra, Mammoth Cave, LB Tar Pits! You gotta be kidding me! Who's list is this anyway? It completely omits the monocline of the Waterpocket Fold of Capitol Reef National Park, the coastal geology of Olympic, the arches of Arches, the evidence of the immense power of glaciers at Yosemite, and many others. While Mount St. Helens and Mammoth Cave are great places, they pale in comparison to geological wonders like Crater Lake (see above) and Carlsbad Caverns.
La Brea Tar Pits!? What the...?

Our family has visited three of the ten: Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Niagara Falls. We were suitably impressed. I studied Geology in college, and do appreciate what these sites have to offer. We hope to visit the other seven on the list, and more.

Regarding the Petrified Forest, we'd really like to go one day soon. I wrote an article on petrified wood, borrowing photos with permission from a nice family and other folks, who have been there. If you'd like to learn a little more about 'petwood', and why the interest, just read "Petrified Wood, Part I" at: and "Petrified Wood, Part II" at:

Whether or not it's a duplicate, the key word would be "most spectacular". I've been to parts of the area that are covered, and I didn't consider any part I visited as spectacular as Yosemite Valley.

It's a bit odd that they would include an area roughly the size of New York State. If that was the case, they could include the entire Colorado River drainage basin which would include Grand Canyon NP and Canyonlands NP as well as several other NPS units. I just think their methodology is a little bit flawed if Yosemite Valley isn't considered one of the 10 "most spectacular" geological sites in the continental US.

This would be my top 5:

1) Yellowstone Caldera
2) Grand Canyon
3) Yosemite Valley (which would also cover several waterfalls)
4) Mount St Helens (I don't necessarily think of it as a place for an extended visit since the mountain has turned into what it is - a big brown landslide. It is a fascinating piece of geological history though)
5) Carlsbad Caverns (from reputation - I hope to make a visit).

Petrified Forest is easily one of the most underrated and overlooked national parks with lots of beautiful stark desert scenery. The colorful Triassic logs are pretty neat too. I highly recommend this one if you like your parks empty, vistas vast and full of vivid color and light.

The tacky tourist town of Holbrook is lots of fun too with it's 1950's era strip along old U.S. 66 replete with old hotels (The Wigwam being my favorite) and giant statues of dinosaurs at most of the rock shops. A great place to take pictures and reminisce about a vanished America.

@ ypw: The list was obviously composed to cover as many factors of geology as possible. And the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail stands for glacial erosion and other geological effects of the ice ages. Yosemite would be a duplicate. Arches, Zion, and the other iconic parks of the Colorado Plateau are covered by Grand Canyon.

The whole National Park Service is a compendium of geologic wonders. I'm not sure how they could include some of these places when there are some incredibly iconic places such as Yosemite Valley, Arches NP (Delicate Arch is possibly the most awe inspiring piece of rock I've ever seen), or Zion Canyon.

That they didn't consider Yosemite Valley to be one of the top 10 geologic sites in the continental US is telling.

The two times I've been to Petrified Forest I was one of those people who didn't get out of the car. When I was 16 I made a crosscountry trip with firends of the family and they didn't believe in hiking so I just had to look out the window. The second time the visitor center closed 20 minutes early (and yes I was on the correct time) so I didn't get any help from staff and wasn't sure where I could go while hauling my travel trailer. BUt even though I saw the park through a windshield, it was enough to capture my interest and it made me want to come back and experience even more.

Ranger Holly

Harper (not his/her real name) states in his/her bio, "Andrew Harper has an abiding passion for classic hospitality and refined service..."

In other words, places where nature is kept managed and to the fringes and the lodging of choice is a four-star hotel, not a four-man tent. He's writing to a completely different set of travelers than those who frequent this blog. I have a feeling a trip with Harper would be a truly mind-numbing and frustrating vacation for me!

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments