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striped purple sandstone

Part of the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park features a strangely beautiful landscape. Erosion has sculpted and shaped intriguing landforms, revealing a treasure trove of fossils within multi-colored layers. The rocks reveal an enthralling chronicle of time that is unfolding and ever-changing.

What can the rocks tell us? Think of the colorful layers of the Petrified Forest as pages in a massive book. As the pages are turned, we discover that the words are a language we don’t completely understand. The pictures help, but we must put together the story of this ancient book with fragmented clues. The first chapter of this geological text is the Chinle Formation.

sunset in the painted desert

Colorful badlands meet the Mother Road in Arizona’s high desert.

Looking like pastel mounds of Neapolitan ice cream, Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert is a vast, striated badlands that extends some 150 miles from the eastern end of the Grand Canyon into Petrified Forest National Park. A geologist’s other-worldly paradise, the colorful hills, flat-topped mesas and sculptured buttes of the Painted Desert are primarily made up of the Chinle Formation, mainly river-related deposits dating back some 200 million years. Inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years, the multi-hued sweep of pigmented rock in the arid high desert received its present name in the 1540s from the Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, who called the area El Desierto Pintado.

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