Above: A tiger iron microbe fossil. Photograph by George Miller.

As a kid, I thought “petrified forest” meant an actual forest of rock trees—just another childhood disappointment. Now, I step into the Zuhl Museum and feel vindicated. And overwhelmed. Dozens of rainbow-colored stumps stand against the mural of a redwood forest.

“I wanted to create the impact of seeing a forest of petrified trees,” museum director Tiffany Santos explains. “It’s a good photo op also.”

Tucked on the NMSU campus in Las Cruces, behind a forest of windmills, the Zuhl Museum has the nation’s largest petrified wood exhibit, from the collection of Manhattan gallerist Herbert Zuhl and his wife, Joan. But that’s only the start of their collection. Add fossils from 3.5 billion years ago, dinosaurs, a baby mammoth, and spectacular gems and minerals. If you can believe it, only half of the 1,800 specimens the Zuhls collected from all around the world are displayed. At age 95, the benefactor is still the museum’s most regular visitor.

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What’s the museum’s oldest and rarest artifact? Not the nest of dinosaur eggs, nor the colorful banded iron created by the first oxygen-producing microbes. Check out the 135-pound, basketball-sized meteorite, a billion years older than planet Earth.