By Lindsay Seventko, American Forests

When thinking about our forests, thoughts of rich earth, lush foliage and intriguing wildlife typically come to mind. But, any true forest lover should, at least once, visit a forest that isn’t alive at all — America’s beautiful petrified forests. These preserved antiquities offer fascinating insights into the makeup of forests stretching back millions of years and are often breathtakingly beautiful. Take a peek at some of the petrified forests in the U.S., and be sure to add them to your next sightseeing destinations.

1. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

The fossilized forest of Petrified Forest National Park was formed more than 200 million years ago, before the area was transformed into the more barren conditions of today. Long ago, the forest was quickly buried under the sediment of an old river, depriving the logs of oxygen and stopping the decaying process. As the minerals were absorbed into the trunks, crystals slowly formed into beautiful formations of sparkling quartz, amethyst and jasper. Many of the logs appear to be cleanly sliced into sections, as if done on purpose. But, these cuts were made long before chainsaws, when the Colorado Plateau began lifting nearly 60 million years ago, and the stress cleanly shattered the quartz. The anciently preserved logs, stumps and foliage are a brilliant array of sparkling, rainbow-colored crystals that give a glimpse into how radically different the area looked millennia ago.

Recently, new sections of the park have been opened to exploration, and among them, human-like petroglyphs that point to what some of the oldest forest-dwellers looked like. More recently, Puebloan people used the fossilized wood to make tools and build structures. Some of their old homes (circa 1050-1300) have been excavated and restored, offering a fascinating look into these historic peoples’ lives.

Petrified Forest National Park
Credit: Col Ford and Natasha de Vere via Flickr.

2. Yellowstone National Park,Wyoming

Millions of tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park, typically to witness Old Faithful or test of the hot springs’ temperature firsthand. But, one of the lesser known, yet fascinating, parts of this park are the sections of petrified forest. After a volcanic eruption smothered the living forest about 50 million years ago, the lava and ash instantly stopped the decay process and preserved the upright replicas of the ancient trees, some with up to 1,000 tree rings. The forest also has the ancient fossilized wildlife to match — fossils of dinosaurs and a wooly mammoth can be found at nearby museums!

Petrified trunk in Yellowstone National Park
Petrified trunk in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Greg Willis via Flickr.

3. Gilboa Fossil Forest, New York

Miraculously, the appearance of the first forests on earth have been preserved through fossils at Gilboa Fossil Forest. Dating back an astonishing 380 million years to the Devonian Period of transitioning from a marine to a terrestrial world, the fossils depict the developing stage of the earth’s first forests. Now in present-day New York, the fossils show how dramatically different the area is now. For starters, it was 20-degrees south of the equator in a tropical zone, and the forest was made up of trees resembling large, fern-like palms.

Fossils of the branches of some of the first trees in Gilboa
Fossils of the branches of some of the first trees in Gilboa. Credit: James St. John via Flickr.

From rainbow streaked crystal logs to the fossils of the world’s first trees and insights into some of the earliest humans, these ancient forests deserve a visit. Check out these petrified forests or find one near you, and appreciate the history of how we came to enjoy the beautiful, living forests we have today.