Our kids were confused as we approached Petrified Forest National Park in the middle of the Arizona desert. It’s true, this “forest” is unlike any other in the country.
Over 200 million years ago, ancient rainforests covered the area that is now known as Petrified Forest National Park. Some of the earliest dinosaurs roamed across the lush forested land. As the climate changed, the huge trees died, fell to the earth, and were slowly transformed into stone.
In the mid to late 1800s, visitors discovered and started to collect the petrified wood, threatening the unique landscape. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside over 50,000 acres and created Petrified Forest National Monument. 56 years later, on December 9, 1962, it was designated as our nation’s 30th national park.
Now visitors come to Petrified Forest National Park to see one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the world. Last year over 627,000 people visited the park; however, visitation was the lowest it’s been since 2011. During our February visit, we were surprised at the lack of crowds as we explored the stunning landscape. It seems ironic that Grand Canyon National Park, which is less than a three-hour drive from Petrified Forest, received ten times as many visitors last year. We know the Grand Canyon is among the seven natural wonders of the world, but Petrified Forest National Park is really beautiful, too, and more than deserves its time in the spotlight as well!
If you are planning to travel on Interstate 40 between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, Petrified Forest National Park is well worth the slight detour, as the Petrified Forest is located just off the highway. Most visitors take the 28-mile drive through the park, just stopping briefly at overlooks and viewpoints to snap a few photos. However, we think this park is best appreciated by getting out of your car and exploring on foot. We recommend at least a half day, if not more, to explore all that Petrified Forest National Park has to offer.
These are some reasons why we think you’ll fall for Petrified Forest National Park, too!
Petrified Forest National Park hikes and sights are highlighted in our 10+ page itinerary for Petrified Forest National Park.
1) PAINTED DESERT RIM TRAIL (1-mile round trip)
Walk between Tawa Point and the Painted Desert Inn to take in views of the colorful Painted Desert below. The Painted Desert Rim Trail, which passes through pinyon-juniper shrubland atop volcanic rock, was our first hike in the park and a beautiful introduction to the Painted Desert. The stunning bands of colored sediment in the rolling hills give this section of the park its name.
2) PAINTED DESERT INN
The Painted Desert Inn, a National Historic Landmark, offers exhibits on the park’s history. Park rangers are available to give tours and tell the story of the inn which is now used as a museum and gallery. There is also ice-cream service in the lower level during the summer. Take in views from Kachina Point while you are here. If you have packed a picnic lunch, this is a good spot to eat, or you can drive just a bit further to Chinde Point which has a large picnic table area and wonderful views.
3) PAINTED DESERT OVERLOOKS
If you are short on time, be sure to at least stop at the Painted Desert overlooks (north of Interstate 40) which also offer spectacular views of the red landscapes. Recommended overlooks in the Painted Desert section of the park include Tiponi (just past the visitor center), Tawa, Kachina (at the Painted Desert Inn), Chinde, and Nizhoni Points. As stated before, Chinde Point has ample picnic facilities, or you can just eat in your car while you take in the scenery.
A view from Tiponi Point
A view from Tawa Point
A view from Chinde Point
A view from Nizhoni Point
4) ROUTE 66 ALIGNMENT
Visit this site where historic Route 66 once cut through the park. The rusty 1932 Studebaker makes a great photo op!
Fun fact: Petrified Forest National Park is the ONLY national park site that contains a segment of this famous American roadway!
This Custom, Vintage-Style Poster was made by Just Go Travel Studios from a photo taken at the park by a client. To learn about our process or see a gallery of other vintage-style posters, click on the links for more information.
5) THE TEEPEES
Shortly after passing through the red landscapes and crossing the highway, the colors of the desert begin to change again. The park’s main road runs right through dramatic geological forms known as the Teepees. The sight of these striking rock formations with bands of red, blue, purple, grey, and white rock is worth stopping for; and, we almost drive right by while I was looking at the map!
6) BLUE MESA
One of our absolute favorite things to do in Petrified Forest National Park was hiking in Blue Mesa. You can see Blue Mesa by car on the 3.5-mile loop drive (just off the main park road), stopping at the various overlooks along the way. However, we recommend parking at the Blue Mesa trailhead and trekking to the floor of the mesa. A one-mile paved trail drops steeply down into the badlands where the loop winds through layered hills in shades of blue, grey and purple. This striking desert landscape is not to be missed! If you’ve driven from the north, this is also likely where you’ll spot your first petrified wood. This is a great place to visit in the early morning or during sunset, as the colors are especially striking and make for phenomenal photos. We covered this hike in more depth in blog, Hiking the Blue Mesa Trail.
7) CRYSTAL FOREST
The southern part of the park is where you’ll find the largest concentrations of petrified wood. There are a few short hiking trails displaying the sparkly gemstone woodlands, but the Crystal Forest loop was our favorite! This easy .75-mile paved loop hike winds through fields of petrified logs glimmering with quartz crystals. The giant fossilized logs, many fractured into smaller segments, lie scattered throughout this desert landscape. Rainbow hues tint much of the quartz that replaced the wood tissue over 200 million years ago. One important note is that even though the petrified wood is plentiful on the Crystal Forest trail, please stay on the trail and do not take or deface any of the wood. It is against the law!
8) RAINBOW FOREST MUSEUM AND GIANT LOGS TRAIL
The Rainbow Forest Museum has paleontological exhibits and a park film to teach you about the fossils in the museum and how the forest became petrified. It also provides access to the Giant Logs Trail. This easy, 0.4-mile paved loop trail takes you past some of the largest petrified logs, including “Old Faithful” which is almost 10 feet across at its base!
MORE REASONS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
If you have more time, here are some other activities we suggest.
PUERCO PUEBLO AND NEWSPAPER ROCK
Interested in southwest archaeology? Visit Puerco Pueblo, the historic remains of a Pueblo village that dates back to 1250-1380 CE! Petrified logs were used to build the 100+ room village that likely housed about 200 people. Or, stop by Newspaper Rock to view more than 650 petroglyphs created by the Puebloan people who once lived here. You’ll need a spotting scope or good zoom lens to get a good look though.
LONG LOGS AND AGATE HOUSE
If you have extra time, check out some of the longer trails in the park. Long Logs and Agate House can be combined or hiked separately. Long Logs is a 1.6-mile loop to the site of a Triassic log jam. This area has some especially long fossilized tree trunks. Agate House is a 2-mile round trip hike to a partially restored pueblo build with petrified wood. Both hikes can be combined for a total of 2.6 miles round trip.
If you are looking to get off the beaten path, get on your hiking shoes and explore the more remote areas of Petrified Forest National Park. Explore places like Jasper Forest, Billings Gap or Onyx Bridge. For more information on hiking off developed trails, ask at one of the visitor centers.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
- Petrified Forest National Park is open every day except for December 25. Park hours fluctuate during the year, so be sure to check before your visit. The park typically closes at 5 PM, so we recommend arriving before 3 PM if you are planning to at least drive through the park and stop at overlooks.
- Bathrooms are few and far between. Both visitor centers and the Painted Desert Inn have bathroom facilities. Others are located at Chinde Point and Puerco Pueblo but these may only be open seasonally (Chinde Point bathrooms were closed during our February visit).
- There are no campgrounds or overnight facilities in the park, but backpacking is allowed in the wilderness portion of the park if you have a permit. Register at a visitor center for a free backcountry camping permit.
- Nearby lodging can be found in Holbrook, Winslow, Gallup and St. Johns. Flagstaff, Arizona is an hour and 45 minutes away. Lodging is also located in Albuquerque, NM. Tripadvisor is our go-to-resource for lodging near Petrified Forest National Park.
- Collecting petrified wood, fossils or artifacts is prohibited. Take only photographs and memories.
- Leave your drones at home. They aren’t permitted at any NPS location.
- Stay hydrated! The high elevation and dry climate of the park can cause dehydration especially in summer, when temperatures can reach over 100F.
FURTHER PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK INFORMATION FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Things to do, what to pack, what to do before you go, maps, hiking information and other park details are included in our 10+ page itinerary for Petrified Forest National Park.
- Read all about the Blue Mesa Trail in our blog, Hiking the Blue Mesa Trail. This hike also made it to our list of the best family hikes with breathtaking views.
- In addition to Grand Canyon National Park, think about adding the lesser known Saguaro National Park to your list as well. It is about 5 hours away, but it is a surprising park as well. Our itinerary for Saguaro National Park is a good place to start!
- We create custom, vintage-style posters, postcards and note cards from your photos of Petrified Forest National Park. Check out our process!
OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION ON PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
- For more information on developed trails within Petrified Forest National Park, check out this National Park Service link. This link also includes information on Petrified Forest National Park hours.
- Petrified Forest National Park is located between Albuquerque and Flagstaff. For directions from Albuquerque to the park, click here (just over 3 hours). For directions from Flagstaff to the park, check out the link here (it is about 2 hours from Flagstaff).
- Carful of Kids talks about their three bucket list stops inside Petrified Forest National Park.
- For more ideas on traveling Petrified Forest with kids, check out the Laugh with us Blog.
- Walking on Travels discusses their discovery of the park in only an hour in their blog on Petrified Forest.
- While you are visiting Arizona, make sure you check out Antelope Canyon. What to see and do here is covered in detail by Esther and Jacob in their blog, The Complete Guide to Antelope Canyon.
- Finally, Bram Reusen gives his perspective on the best things to do in Petrified Forest National Park.