While it’s hard to believe from looking at Yellowstone’s eruptive landscape today, there was once a time when this corner of Wyoming was covered in towering trees. Much like the Redwoods of California, these trees were prolific and crawled across hillsides and thrust their way towards the sky, with many species of tropical plants like cinnamon growing nearby. That all changed about 55 million years ago, when explosive eruptions of Yellowstone’s volcanoes forever altered the landscape. Trees were uprooted and caught in debris fields, slipping and sliding in the mud, before finally settling in upright positions like toothpicks standing on end. While many of those trees would eventually die, a few that were fossilized and petrified like stone are still in the park today—the most famous being the Petrified Tree just west of Tower Junction. Located within a protective fence (to keep souvenir looters at bay), the Petrified Tree is a window back to Yellowstone’s tropical past, when the peaks of the mountains we see today were once at the valley floor.
The Petrified Tree is by the Lost Lake Trailhead, and is accessible via a short hike about 1⁄4 mile off the Grand Loop Road. The turnoff is located just west of Tower Junction when traveling in the direction of Mammoth Hot Springs, and the trail also features panoramic views looking south towards the peak of Mt Washburn.