Visiting the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona has long been on my list of places to see. However, I pictured it as maybe a stopover on a way to someplace far greater—like the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park. Luckily for us, our nomadic lifestyle allowed us the flexibility to end up staying several days in this amazing natural landscape. Otherwise, we might have just driven through it like so many others who stop briefly on their way elsewhere. There is so much beauty, history, and amazing geology here. It’s just laying on the ground undisturbed, waiting for visitors to discover, and then to leave it where it lies for countless future generations to enjoy. Here are the top 7 reasons to visit the Petrified Forest.
Top 7 Reasons for Visiting the Petrified Forest
- The “First Forest”
- The Painted Desert
- The Petroglyphs
- The Mother Road – Route 66
- The Petrified Agate House
- Backpacking the Wilderness Zones
- The Blue Mesa
1) The “First Forest”
There are many areas within Petrified Forest National Park that have petrified logs. The ancient fossils are colorful and the obvious reason most visitors travel to the park. Adding to the grandeur, the Park Service dates the logs as being over 200 million years old. Behemoths buried in the soil continue to be unearthed by natural erosion. The areas within the park that contain logs are naturally known as forests. Each area has its own beauty and different-sized stumps.
Jasper Forest is one of our favorite areas with petrified logs. The massive stumps eroded out of the colorful badland formations that roll over the terrain. The Jasper Forest has the nickname of being the “First Forest” because it’s the first one early travelers to the park came to when arriving by train. This forest also has the benefit of being a dirt trail which, in my opinion, is preferable to walking on asphalt. Crystal Forest is a nice paved alternative for those looking for easy accessibility.
2) The Painted Desert
The Painted Desert is a remote area of the United States extending from the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest National Park and covering almost 94,000 acres. It is a colorful, eroded badland with little infrastructure. One of the best aerial views of the desert is from the northside of Petrified Forest National Park at the Painted Desert Inn. The inn is a historic landmark that dates back to 1924. Today, it is an ice cream & soda shop, museum, ranger station, and the starting point for an adventure into the Painted Desert. Take the 2-mile (one-way) Wilderness Trail into the colorful desert. You’ll not only experience the beauty of the badlands close-up but enjoy your destination, Onyx Bridge, a petrified log that spans a small eroded creekbed.
For those unable to venture so far into the Painted Desert to see the Onyx Bridge, the Agate Bridge near the Jasper Forest is a simple stroll from the parking area. However, it no longer feels natural having been reinforced with concrete.
3) The Petroglyphs
Present-day Petrified Forest National Park sits atop land that was once inhabited by the ancient Pueblo people. The most lasting remnant of this culture is found in their rock art (petroglyphs). The Park Service dates some of the petroglyphs to be nearly 2,000 years old. The best examples of that are open to the public are found on Newspaper Rock and in Puerco Pueblo. Located at mile marker 11, Puerco Pueblo is an excavated Puebloan community. The lines of ancient walls cross over the terrain allowing visitors a glimpse of how these desert inhabitants lived. Alongside the ruins are several examples of beautiful petroglyphs whose meaning can only be speculated. Near mile marker 12 there is a road called Newspaper Rock Spur which leads to an overlook of a large boulder densely covered with ancient petroglyphs.
4) The Mother Road – Route 66
Route 66 is considered the Mother Road of America, It led adventurous travelers across the country from Chicago to Los Angeles on a 2,400 mile-long journey through the United States. The Mother Road was an affectionate term for those early adopters of the automobile and RV lifestyle. Today the Interstate highway system has made the road obsolete and enveloped some of the formerly majestic Route 66 which was decommissioned in 1985. In Petrified Forest National Park there is an old 1932 Studebaker, a few telephone poles, and a Route 66 sign marking the spot where the old route passed through the park. This is a way of reminding visitors of those early days of automobile travel that literally paved the way for those of us who travel today.
5) The Petrified Agate House
According to the Park Service, there are hundreds of remnants of petrified wood structures that have been discovered in the park. These are the ruins of the ancient Pueblo people who inhabited the area from 1050 to 1300 AD. The Agate House is a reconstruction built in 1934 atop one of the ancient ruins. It was built using ancient petrified wood in an effort to recreate a period-accurate replica. The building makes for a very interesting destination hike but the entire Long Logs loop trail is worth exploration. There are many nearly full-sized logs littering the ground in this area, which is known as the Rainbow Forest.
6) Backpacking the Wilderness Zones
Jennifer and I have traveled all over the world camping in wilderness areas all along the way. The only place quieter than the Petrified Forest Wilderness Zone might be sitting inside Carlsbad Cavern early in the morning before the majority of the visitors arrived. There are five wilderness zones and any of them would be worth exploration just for the quiet. But the beauty found in the Painted Desert is perhaps the most alluring. There are few set trails in the wilderness zones. For the most part, backpackers are allowed to roam wherever they like. This too is a unique experience as there are few places in North America where venturing off-trail isn’t prohibited or at least frowned upon.
The experience of exploring seemingly untouched areas of the park is priceless. As of 2021, it’s also still free of charge. Permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis at either the Painted Desert Visitor Center or the Rainbow Forest Museum.
7) The Blue Mesa
Blue Mesa is the crown jewel of the Petrified Forest. A striped blue and white landscape dotted with petrified red tree trunks dotting the landscape. It’s the most beautiful area within the park boundary and is no secret to visitors to the park. The paved and relatively easy Blue Mesa Loop trail leads most visitors into the depths of the gorgeous formation. However, the somewhat hidden Blue Forest Trail is a more adventurous option.
The Blue Forest Trail
Starting near the badland formations known as the TeePees, the trail crosses over the entirety of the Blue Mesa landscape. As it goes, it reveals more of the landscape’s beauty and 200 million-year-old trees. At times, the trail is a seemingly forgotten path that is being allowed to erode out of existence. It is only about 1.5 miles (one-way) but this isn’t a trail for young children or the faint of heart. No cell service, very few hikers, and at times a very narrow path with steep drop-offs. However, for those looking for solitude and adventure while visiting the Petrified Forest, this is a must-do hike.
Logistics for Visiting the Petrified Forest
Hours of Operation
Unlike many National Parks, the Petrified Forest isn’t open to the public 24-hours a day. This is to protect the priceless artifacts from vandals. As of 2021, the park hours are 8 AM – 5 PM Mountain Standard Time. They do not observe Mountain Daylight Time.
March – May: Spring typically has milder temperatures and flowers bloom across the desert terrain. An ideal time to visit the park.
June – August: Summers can be unbearable hot and thunderstorms can be violent with very little cover in the desert terrain. The rain does, however, bring out the colors of the Painted Desert.
September – November: Autumn is a great time to visit with milder temperatures. The few plants that survive here are evergreens so not much color change.
December – February: Winter is a nice time for visiting the Petrified Forest. Moderately cold weather is great for hiking and a dusting of snow is possible which only adds dynamics to an already colorful terrain.
The Petrified Forest currently has no campgrounds or other forms of accommodation inside the park. If you want to stay inside the park you will need to acquire a permit and backpack into one the wilderness zones. There are a few options on the south end of the park or in Holbrook to the west. On a whole, there isn’t a lot to choose from.
Chrystal Forest Gift Shop & Campground: If you are traveling in a self-contained rig and do not need hook-ups then this is your spot. It is just a few miles south of the park gate and free.
Petrified Forest Gift Shop & RV Park: Located just across the road from the free option above, this location is for those traveling who need power hookups. The fee as of 2021 is a very reasonable $15 + tax.
Holbrook KOA: For those needing full-service hookups travel west to the town of Holbrook.
La Quinta Inn: Visit Holbrook, Arizona if you are looking for a hotel room rather than a campsite. The La Quinta Inn is a nice modern option but there are a few others to choose from as well.
During the summer the Painted Desert Inn serves ice cream and soda. But, if you are looking for something more substantial you will need to make the 20-mile drive to Holbrook, Arizona. While the small town does have a limited selection of eateries, Romo’s Cafe is a very tasty Mexican option which we highly recommend when visiting the Petrified Forest.
Top 7 Reasons for Visiting the Petrified Forest National Park
Visiting Petrified Forest National Park is so much more than a journey to see 200-million-year-old logs. It is a journey of solitude through time. Trees from an ancient swamp-like forest litter the dry desert landscape. In addition, a human history spanning thousands of years and a colorful desert tapestry await. This is a surreal place that has fascinated explorers since its discovery. Come discover the top 7 reasons and (so many more!) on your on journey to Petrified Forest National Park.