Escalante Petrified Forest

Escalante Petrified Forest

37°47’18.5″N 111°37’39.5″W

Randall Chapman | April 29th 2018 | Travel

In the hills above Escalante Utah, at an elevation around 6,000ft, lies a link to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Here you can find a high concentration of exposed petrified trees dating back about 135-155million years ago, during the Jurassic Era.  While it is not uncommon to find traces of petrified wood throughout the four corners states, it’s the consecration and quality that make this place special. There is approximately 5.5 million tons of petrified wood exposed in the park, though the trails only take you through a small sampling of it. This forest is not as expansive as the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona but it is still a place worthy of visiting if you’re in the area.  Other things that might draw you to the area are the town of Escalante, a mile or so away. This is where you will find the visitors center for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with Bryce Canyon National Park just 44 miles to the west. Hwy 12 is a National Scenic Byway that one should consider taking a week or two to explore, unfortunately I only had one day and this was the one stop I made.

The Escalante Petrified Forest State Park is adjacent to the Wide Hollow Reservoir which is used by the town of Escalante for irrigation but also offers fishing and other recreational activities. My initial plan was to hike the trail through the forest then kayak around the reservoir for a bit however the high winds and looming storm convinced me otherwise. For hiking trails there is one main loop with a guide by numbers pamphlet you can pick up at the visitors center when you pay for access. Off the main loop is a secondary loop, called the “Trail of Sleeping Rainbows”. This trail is significantly steeper but it is where you will see the most petrified wood and I highly recommend doing it. The whole hike with both loops is around 2 miles and dogs are allowed on leash.

I didn’t intend on camping here but the campsite was full which kind of surprised me on a Thursday in mid-April. A year earlier I was camping at Fish Lake just north of here and was one of three people there. Being on Hwy 12 probably makes this place quite popular. If you plan to camp here I would make reservations in advance.

To help paint a picture of what the area was like when the trees were alive here’s an excerpt from the pamphlet.

“Imagine yourself in a large low floodplain similar to the Mississippi Delta area but with less foliage. To the north-west you could see towering volcanoes such as Mount St. Helens. To the East would be a large mountain range similar to the Sierra Nevada. It is the ancestral Rockies. You would be surrounded by large conifer trees, some more than 200 ft high. Nearby would be cycads, the ancestors of palm trees, and some ferns. One hundred fifty million years ago this region was near the equator, but our continent has since drifted north”

The climate and surroundings are much different now. With the North American Plate running into the Pacific Plate millions of years ago there was an uplift and this area is now 5,000 higher in elevation. It is now a high desert environment with much smaller Utah junipers and pinyon pines as well as desert shrubs and some cactus are scattered across the landscape. The Volcanos to the north-west are long since extinct and eroded away but their ash can be seen all around in the hill sides. It’s what gives the area the colors, the “painted desert” look. Less than 50 million years ago a volcano to the north blew covering the region with lava flows and boulders.

The trees that were buried in the flood plain long ago were buried in mud and ash in an oxygen-free environment. Minerals from the mud and ash with the help of ground water and pressure leached into the cells of the tree crystalizing them but keeping them intact. Some of the specimens here are quite remarkable, many of them still have the rings intact.

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