4. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Paralyzed, petrified, turned to stone. It's the terrible curse in countless tales, from Greek mythology to the Harry Potter books. But one look at Petrified Forest's namesake trees—shimmering with quartz crystals in shades of red, gold, and green—and petrifaction seems less an unhappy ending than a lovely hereafter.
Of course, it was no magic spell that scattered these treasures across northeast Arizona, but the slow seep of minerals into the fallen logs of a forest dating as far back as 218 million years. Buried beneath layers of sediment, the organic matter acted as tree-shaped molds.
Short trails lead to impressive specimens in the Crystal Forest and Long Logs areas, as well as to Ancestral Puebloan sites such as Newspaper Rock, which features more than 650 petroglyphs.
Several routes traverse the Painted Desert, where erosion has exposed the remains of giant reptiles, many on display in the park's Rainbow Forest Museum and working paleontology lab. Even more attractions await discovery in Petrified Forest's expansive backcountry. At a lot of parks, you aren't permitted to go off-trail, explains resident archaeologist William Reitze, but most of Petrified Forest is open to the public. "You can hike to a beautiful place where there aren't any people," he says.
Areas such as the Red Basin Clam Beds were acquired in 2004 as part of an ongoing expansion that nearly doubled the park's size to 221,390 acres. As prehistoric sites and ancient fossils are uncovered each year, Petrified Forest keeps growing, changing, and refusing to stand still.