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Thursday, July 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ginkgo Petrified Forest: Tread with wonder in ancient path of lava

By Cathy McDonald
Special to The Seattle Times

CATHY MCDONALD
Petrified logs dot the landscape outside the visitors center at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. The park is a National Natural Landmark and contains one of the most unusual petrified forests in the world.
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NWsource: Travel
VANTAGE, Kittitas County — The Eastern Washington of the Miocene Period wasn't a bad place to live. The creation of the modern Cascades was still several million years in the future, so the region received more moisture than today, resulting in more temperate conditions. Of course, you had to be lucky enough to live during one of the times between the huge lava flows that burst forth from giant fissures in southeastern Washington, periodically icing the eastern portion of the state with thick layers of dark basalt.

The inhabitant of the stone enclosure set into the sagebrush and balsam-root-covered hill in front of me hadn't been so fortunate. Visible through the locked gate was the preserved remnant of a ginkgo tree. Protected against vandalism, the tombs of 21 other petrified logs of various species dot the hillside trails of Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park near Vantage.

The park, a National Natural Landmark, contains one of the most unusual petrified forests in the world. The tissue structure of the tree specimens is so well-preserved that dozens of individual species have been identified. The site is remarkable not only because of its wide variety of preserved trees, but because they are preserved in lava. People come from all over the world to visit the park.

"We've had some visitors who practically get off the plane in Seattle and come straight here," said Joyce Nelson, an interpretive assistant at the park. "There's been people from literally every continent — we had workers here who had done construction in Antarctica."

View of history

From my wind-whipped viewpoint on the hill, I tried to imagine the scene 15.5 million years ago. According to a report by Jack Powell, a retired geologist from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, by that time huge amounts of lava had already erupted, and the lava beds here were more than a mile thick.

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Ginkgo Petrified Forest

Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park is just off Interstate 90 about 2.5 hours east of Seattle. Take Exit 136 at Vantage and follow signs to the park. Visitor center open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Sept. 15; open weekends into October and closed in winter (although park grounds and trails are open).

Several miles of trails (lower section is paved and accessible to wheelchairs) are two miles west of the center (buy a trail guide/map at the interpretive center). Pets allowed on leash. No bicycles. No collecting of petrified wood. Good walking shoes recommended. Take water, stay on trails and watch for rattlesnakes.

More information

509-856-2290, 509-856-2700, or www.parks.wa.gov.

Gift shop

The Ginkgo Gem Shop is at the turnoff to the visitor center. Phone: 509-856-2225.

The eruptions stopped for tens of thousands of years. The earth sagged under the weight of the previous flows, and a great lake formed, flanked by moisture-loving trees such as cypress. Deciduous species such as ginkgo, walnut, oak, sycamore, beech, hickory and horse chestnut flourished on surrounding hills, while higher elevations held forests of Douglas fir and spruce.

A pumice layer beneath the petrified trees indicates that a volcano erupted to the west, producing mudflows that transported downed trees into the lake. These tree-laden lahars were probably similar to those of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, but they happened on a larger scale and took place over greater periods of time.

A variation on the theory proposes that normal rivers and flooding (not mudflows) carried the wide variety of trees from different elevations down to the lake.

When the basalt flows resumed erupting from the southeast, the Ginkgo Flow poured into ancient Lake Vantage, now full of a jumble of tree trunks brought down by the mudflows. The flows cooled as they hit the lake, so when the lava covered the water-soaked logs, the trees did not burn. Over time, silica-rich groundwater gradually replaced the woody material with minerals.

During the end of the last Ice Age (15,500 to 13,500 years ago), a series of ice dams in northern Montana trapped huge lakes of glacial meltwater. When the dams failed, huge floods repeatedly swept over eastern Washington. During one flood, waters 1,200 feet deep swept over portions of Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. These floods eroded the land within the park, exposing the petrified logs preserved in basalt.

Interpretive center

Two miles to the east, the park's interpretive center perches high above the dammed Columbia River, here called the Wanapum Reservoir. Outside, petrified logs scattered around the building make for unique landscaping.

According to Nelson, "It's not usual for the wind to be 80 miles per hour. The back patio is a wonderful place to watch the weather — sometimes there's even waterspouts."

Inside the center, dozens of cut-and-polished cross-sections of petrified wood glisten in cases, identified by species. Actually, out of the thousands of trees discovered here, only a handful were ginkgo, but the rarity of petrified ginkgo wood, found only in a few places in the world, gave the park its name.

Workers uncovered petrified logs in 1927 while constructing roads in the area. Local Native Americans had used the material for arrowheads and other tools for possibly thousands of years; some of these artifacts are displayed in the center and at the nearby rock shop. In 1931, George F. Beck, a professor at what is now Central Washington University, researched the site and lobbied for its preservation. Workers with the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) created the trails, unearthed the trees and built the oldest part of the interpretive center during the 1930s.

Outside the visitor center is an unexpected bonus. Native American petroglyphs, carefully removed from cliffs farther up the river before the dams were built in the 1950s, are set into the building's foundation. The rock carvings are considered one of the best examples of petroglyphs in the region.

Cathy McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Renton.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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