Petrified Forest National Park is one of the most car-accessible national parks in the country. For those short on time or not able to walk a mile or two (or if it’s hot!), it’s possible to have a great experience by simply driving through, stopping at the many overlooks and browsing the exhibits at the visitor center or the Rainbow Forest Museum. However, there are several short hikes that are “must dos” if you have the time and energy. These “hikes” are more like “walks with hills” in that they are typically short and take less than an hour to complete, even if you take your time.
The Blue Mesa Trail in Petrified Forest National Park is one of these hikes. Coming in at just one-mile (round trip), the Blue Mesa Trail allows hikers to get immersed in the scenery in a way that just can’t be matched by only stopping at the overlook.
If you are traveling to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert in Arizona, we highly recommend getting out of your car and taking a walk through the gorgeous desert badlands!
PARKING AND TRAILHEAD FOR THE BLUE MESA TRAIL
The Blue Mesa trail starts at the Blue Mesa parking area. The parking area is approximately 16 miles (32 min) north of the southern entrance to the park and 18 miles (40 min) miles south of the Painted Desert Visitor Center to the north. Directions from the Visitor Center are easy and can be found here.
Blue Mesa Trail Location from the National Park Service
During peak season, the parking area (which has approximately 25 spaces in two turnoffs) can fill up. Since the hike is relatively short and some visitors just stop for the overlook, the turnover rate in the lot is very high and spaces vacate frequently.
There are no restrooms at the trailhead, but there is a picnic area that is covered. Be advised that there are only a few tables, though, so space can be limited.
BLUE MESA TRAIL: TRAIL SURFACE AND ACCESSIBILITY
- Trail surface. The trail is a mix of pavement and packed gravel, making it to navigate.
- Accessibility. The trail is smooth, but because it is quite steep it is not suitable for wheelchairs. If you walk with a cane and can go up a slope on a smooth trail, then as long as you have the energy to get back up after the initial descent then you’ll be able to take this trail without any issue.
PREPARATION FOR HIKING THE BLUE MESA TRAIL
This hike is fairly short, but since it is very exposed and in Arizona, it can get very hot on the trail. You will mostly notice it on the way back up to the parking area. We recommend bringing with you a few items:
- Sun Protection. You won’t find any shaded places to rest on this trail at all. Make sure you protect yourself from the sun before you head out on the Blue Mesa Trail (or any other trail in the park, for that matter!). Two in our family have sensitive skin, and the sunblock that we use is No-Ad SPF 45.
- Water. No matter when you visit Petrified Forest National Park, you’ll need to bring along plenty of water. The desert is dry during all times of year, even in the winter when we visited. If you don’t already have a backpack water carrier, we have had great luck with the Platypus pack. It carries a lot of water, is easy to clean, durable and can fit in most any backpack.
- First-aid kit. The initial descent on this trail is fairly easy, but as mentioned it can be easy for kids to fall and get scraped up if they aren’t careful. For first-aid, we recommend this mini-kit. It is small enough to fit in your hand and can easily be carried wherever you travel.
HIKING ON THE BLUE MESA TRAIL
Blue Mesa Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
Immediately after starting on the trail, you’ll quickly descent approximately 100 feet in elevation. While the descent is on a smooth surface, it is not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs. Small children will be able to navigate the downward slope easily, as long as they resist the urge to run. For very small children, we recommend using a backpack carrier.
Even though we didn’t have toddlers when we visited, we still held our breath a little as the kids rushed ahead on the downhill!
Right from the beginning of the hike you’ll see absolutely spectacular views of the Blue Mesa. We happened to go on a day with blue sky and puffy clouds, which made it perfect to see the mix of colors in the hills.
After about 0.1 miles, the trail flattens out and comes to a fork. From here, you can travel either way as the trail is a loop. We happened to travel clockwise, but that was just out of chance rather than there being a reason to do so.
Throughout the loop there are signs telling hikers about the Blue Mesa and how it came to be.
Make sure you have your camera ready! The blue, purples and grays in the badlands are stunning!
Also, if you are coming from the north (as most people do, due to the easy access from Interstate 40), this will be the first opportunity to see petrified wood. There is quite a bit on this hike and it makes for great photos. However, if you don't find the perfect picture, you can get them later in the Crystal Forest (south of the Blue Mesa Trail).
The trail is paved the entire way, making it suitable to just wear sturdy walking or running shoes rather than wearing something more rugged like hiking boots. Since there are some hills, we don’t recommend wearing flip-flops or other shoes without much support or grip.
After being on the loop for 20 to 30 minutes, the trail will meet back up at the fork. From here you’ll head uphill. Though this climb is not overly taxing, it will take some effort if you are not used to climbing stairs. In the heat of the summer, this part will have you craving something cold to drink when you return to your car!
WHAT ELSE TO DO NEARBY THE BLUE MESA TRAIL
There is pretty much one way in and out of Petrified Forest National Park, which means that if you get to the Blue Mesa Trail, you are going to easily get to the other main attractions in the park. However, there are a few areas nearby the Blue Mesa Trail that are a must-see:
- Just north of the Blue Mesa Trail is the geological formation called the Teepees. These striking rock formations are hard to miss, but take your time and get a photo shot of them. They are extremely colorful!
- About three miles south of the Blue Mesa Trail is the Agate Bridge. This overlook provides access to a 110 ft. bridge made of Petrified Wood.
BLUE MESA TRAIL: TOP LIKES AND DISLIKES
- Lighting Effects. I know it may sound funny to say “lighting effects”, but when you take this hike you’ll know what we mean. The way the early morning / evening light impacts the colors of the surrounding landscape is so impressive. This hike is pretty during any time of day, but the colors are most dazzling while the sun is lower in the sky, particularly in the hours following sunrise and before sunset. Since the trail is in the middle of the park it’s rare to find yourself here early in the morning or right before sunset, so be prepared to visit in the middle part of the day.
- Immersive Experience. In just a few minutes after starting the hike, you’ll find yourself right in the middle of the mesa without anything that will remind you of civilization.
- Uphill Return. We’ve already said it, but you’ll have to make sure you have the energy to climb up the steep uphill at the end! It’s not like we saw many having trouble with the incline, but it is something that you need to be prepared for as the way down goes really easily!
FURTHER INFORMATION ON PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- We’ve put together a detailed guide on things to do in Petrified Forest National Park. Coming it at over 10 pages, it covers great family hikes (in ranked order, so you don’t have to worry if you are spending your time in the best way possible), includes useful maps, information on what to pack and lodging nearby Petrified Forest National Park.
- For an overview of the entire park and thoughts on why we think you’ll want to make sure this is on your list of places to go, see our blog on 8 Reasons Why You’ll Love Petrified Forest National Park. It is full of great information that we’re confident you’ll find very useful.
- We have a number of WPA style posters, including a Petrified Forest National Park poster. Be sure to check out our extensive selection!
- When you complete your trip make sure you send us a photo or two and we’ll turn it into a Vintage-Style Travel poster! We’ve created countless, everlasting memories for our customers all over the world. Check out our vintage-style posters here.
OTHER USEFUL LINKS AND INFORMATION ON PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
- The National Park Service has a great website that covers details on what you need to know before heading to Petrified Forest National Park.
- Catherine from Carful of Kids wrote a great blog on three must-do stops in Petrified Forest National Park. You should also check out some of her great info on other activities to do with kids.
- Kirsty from Lost in Landmarks wrote up some good information on the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, and also have some good advice on how to travel on a budget.
- Jennifer from Love Dwells Here provides useful tips on how to spend a day in Petrified Forest National Park.