Park History: Petrified Forest National Park

Though some might not be familiar with this park that is an open-air geologic textbook, it dates to 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt protected it by using the Antiquities Act to set aside 60,776 acres as a national monument.

In establishing the national monument on December 8, 1906—11 years after Congress refused to pass legislation that would have created a national park here—the president stated that "the mineralized remains of Mesozoic forests … are of the greatest scientific interest and value and it appears that the public good would be promoted by reserving these deposits of fossilized wood as a National monument with as much land as may be necessary for the proper protection thereof."

President Roosevelt's reliance on the Antiquities Act protected both the natural and the archaeological resources of Petrified Forest. Decades later, the monument gained "national park" status in 1962, and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 enabled the Park Service to place Agate House Pueblo on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Time and again through the years—in 1911, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1958, and 2004—the unusual and outstanding resources of this landscape prompted expansion of the park's footprint. Though Petrified Forest currently is listed as covering 93,532 acres, legislation President George W. Bush signed in 2004 gave the park an "administrative" boundary of 218,533 acres, though much needs to be done in regard to actual land acquisition by the Park Service before the entire expanse is officially within the park's boundaries.

Humankind's footprint on this arid landscape dates back possibly as long ago as 15,000 years, and continues today. Here's a quick overview, courtesy of National Park Service historians:

Paleo People-13,500 to 8000 B.C.

By the end of the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers roamed the Southwest. During this time, the region was cooler with a grassland environment. People gathered wild plants for food and hunted extinct forms of bison and other large herd animals. The nomads used a device called an atlatl to throw their spears and darts. With their distinctive elegant fluting, the projectile points of these ancient people help define the Clovis and Folsom Cultures. Folsom and Clovis camps have been found within Petrified Forest National Park as well as fluted projectile points made of petrified wood.

Archaic Culture-8000 to 500 B.C.

By 4000 B.C., the climate had become similar to that of the present. The area became warmer and the monsoon pattern of precipitation evolved. The megafauna of the past were extinct. People had to broaden their source of food, including many different species of plants and animals. Farming and sedentism began during this period, particularly as corn was brought into the region from the south in the Late Archaic Period. Indicative of this period were one-handed manos, basin metates, flaked tools, and no pottery.

Whipple Expedition of 1853

Routes continued to be explored after the Southwest became part of U.S. territories in the mid-1800s. U.S. Army Lt. Amiel Whipple, surveying for a route along the 35th Parallel passed down a broad sandy wash in the red badlands of the Painted Desert. Impressed with the deposits of petrified wood visible along the banks, Whipple named it Lithodendron ("stone tree") Creek, the large wash that bisects the Wilderness Area of the park today. The Whipple Expedition was the source of the first published account of the petrified wood in what would become Petrified Forest National Park.

E. F. Beale and the U.S. Camel Corps

One of the strangest sights at the edge of the Painted Desert must have been a camel caravan. An experienced explorer, E. F. Beale was hired by the U.S. Government as a civilian contractor to build a wagon road along the 35th Parallel. Between 1857 and 1860, Beale made several trips from his ranch at Fort Tejon, California, building and improving the road. On his first journey, Beale was in charge of a government experiment in desert transport that included camels and their drivers. While Beale became convinced of the camels' value, the government declared the experiment a failure. The wagon road lives on, still visible in spots across the Southwest past of the park. Remains of the road are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Painted Desert Inn

1924: Herbert Lore registered Painted Desert Inn as his business and claimed property under the Homestead Act. The inn was quickly nicknamed “Stone Tree House” due to the petrified wood used in its construction.

Civilian Conservation Corps

1931-1942: The Civilian Conservation Corps arrived in Petrified Forest National Monument and completed several construction projects over the next few years, including Rainbow Forest Museum, park residences, bridges, roads, trails, Agate House and Puerco Pueblo partial reconstructions, and Painted Desert Inn.

1937-1940: The Civilian Conservation Corps, using architectural plans prepared by National Park Service architect Lyle Bennett, remodeled Painted Desert Inn into the Pueblo Revival Style structure present today.