It’s not exactly “Jurassic Park,” but for folks looking to connect to the giant creatures of the past, Holbrook, Ariz., is the next best thing. Located 190 miles northeast of Phoenix and situated within the Painted Desert, Holbrook is known for its remarkable landscape, Route 66 kitsch, Wild West figures and … dinosaurs.
Past meets present
According to scientists, over 245 million years ago, the land upon which the city of Holbrook is built was a vast floodplain that was inhabited by dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes. Eventually, the land sank into the sea, and after the plants and animals died off, their remains were covered in freshwater sediment and were ultimately fossilized. These fossils have been excavated in the Petrified Forest National Park, displayed at the Rainbow Forest Museum and capitalized on by any number of roadside attractions in the area.
Although several of the businesses that traffic in petrified wood, geodes and local artwork over the years have closed or have varied operating hours, one of the oldest and largest is Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Company at 147 U.S. Highway 180. Originally known as the Holbrook Rock Shop and owned by Jim and Cathy Gray, Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Company began more than 48 years ago with nothing more than a pickup truck and a pile of petrified wood. Today, the business owns the mineral rights to several tracts near the Petrified Forest National Park, and it does its own digging, cutting and polishing to create the products it carries in the shop.
To attract travelers to stop in and look at its wares, Jim Gray’s boasts several giant dinosaur statues on display in the parking lot for photo ops. The statues came from the now defunct International Dinosaur Park and Museum of the Americas, which was built in 1999 and featured a 6-mile drive through a 6,500-acre park. That park featured 14 dinosaur statues, and when the park folded, the statues were purchased by other area attractions, including Jim Gray’s, the Hopi Travel Plaza, the Holbrook Visitors Center and the Painted Desert Indian Center.
Established in 1979 and owned by Fred Slatton, the Painted Desert Indian Center offers quality handmade Native American merchandise, including jewelry, sculptures, clothing, home decor and more. Slatton said with prices ranging from 25 cents to $25,000, he literally has something for every budget.
“I bought my statues when the guy (at the International Dinosaur Park) went broke 10 years ago, so I got them for 10 cents on the dollar. I have a T. Rex attacking a Triceratops in my parking lot, and they do a great job of getting people to stop in,” he said. “I wish I had a nickel for every photo that people take of them.”
One business that does charge for photos is the Rainbow Rock Shop in downtown Holbrook at Navajo and Hopi Drives. Owner Adam Luna, a welder, spent over 20 years to create the seven statues on the property using concrete and reinforcement rods. The “magnificent seven,” as they are known, range in size and species, with the largest being a 25-foot-tall green and yellow friendly brontosaurus. He charges 75 cents to 98 cents to take photos with the statues.
“I knew Adam years ago when I had a store down on the Mexico State line,” Slatton said. “He used to sell me petrified wood, but I haven’t seen him for so long, I don’t think I’d recognize him if he walked in here.”
Slatton said discoveries at the national forest have helped promote Holbrook as an epicenter of the Triassic Age. One of the more remarkable finds was the 1984 excavation of “Gertie,” one of the oldest dinosaur skeletons found in the Americas. While Gertie’s place in the history of dinosaurs is still a bit of a mystery, her display at the Rainbow Forest Museum at the southern end of the park ensures that the curious roadside reptile relics will continue to draw visitors to Holbrook. “A lot of the businesses that have dinosaur statues have gone by the wayside, but the statues remain,” Slatton said. “None are as good as mine, though. My triceratops has a bite out of him because those T. Rexes … they sure were mean!”