One of the biggest questions about Petrified Forest National Park is whether it belongs on your national park checklist? If you’re passing through on I-40, you won’t want to miss a visit to Petrified Forest. Petrified Forest is part of the Grand Circle, an informal grouping of ten national parks. These include Grand Canyon, Great Basin, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, and Utah’s Mighty 5—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion.
Obviously, this is not a big-name national park. Especially when compared with its better-known neighbor, Grand Canyon National Park, located three hours to the northwest. Conveniently located on Interstate 40 in northwest Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park covers 346 square miles of colorful badlands and petrified wood formations. There are a variety of short trails, scenic viewpoints, and two museums.
Most visitors to Petrified Forest NP will be content with a shorter visit lasting anywhere from a few hours to a single day. If you’re coming from the west on I-40, it’s best to divert onto US-180 near Holbrook and explore the park from south to north. If you’re coming from the east on I-40, north to south is the preferred direction. Here is a list of the highlights to help you plan your trip.
What is Petrified Forest National Park Famous For?
The park is most famous for its extensive deposits of petrified wood. This natural wonder occurs when ancient trees are submerged in sediment and volcanic ash, leading to a mineralization process that replaces the organic matter with silica, resulting in stunning, colorful fossilized wood. The park’s unique features include an abundance of petrified logs scattered across the landscape, showcasing vibrant hues and intricate details.
Aside from its extraordinary petrified wood, the park encompasses diverse landscapes, including colorful badlands, mesas, and the awe-inspiring Painted Desert. This mesmerizing scenery, along with the rich geological formations, offers you a captivating journey through time. Moreover, the park holds immense scientific value, providing insights into ancient ecosystems and serving as a significant paleontological and archaeological resource.
Geological and Cultural Significance
This unique park is not only a testament to Earth’s geological history but also a sanctuary for preserving and appreciating the natural wonders it beholds. There is a rich cultural heritage that features the ancestral Puebloan people who once inhabited the area. This is evidenced by ancient ruins and petroglyphs found within the park.
Without question, you will have the opportunity to connect with the past, marvel at the wonders of nature, and gain a deeper appreciation for the Earth’s geological processes.
Key Highlights on the South Side of the Park
The south side of Petrified Forest National Park offers a plethora of key highlights for visitors to explore. Here are the top attractions you can enjoy:
- Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitor Center: This is the perfect starting point for your journey. The museum provides fascinating paleontology exhibits and an informative short film that introduces the park’s history and natural wonders.
- Giant Logs Trail: Located just behind the Rainbow Forest Museum, this short 0.4-mile loop trail takes you through a paved path adorned with some of the largest and most vibrant logs of petrified wood in the park.
- Long Logs Trail: Embark on this 1.6-mile loop trail that showcases one of the highest concentrations of petrified wood in Petrified Forest National Park. It offers an immersive experience surrounded by the awe-inspiring beauty of the ancient logs.
- Agate House: Take a 2-mile round trip to discover the partial reconstruction of an ancient eight-room pueblo made entirely of petrified wood. This trail offers insights into the architecture and ingenuity of the ancestral Puebloan people.
- Crystal Forest Trail: Venture on this 0.75-mile loop trail known for its breathtaking crystals embedded within the petrified logs. It’s a captivating sight that showcases the unique beauty and geological wonders of the park.
- Jasper Forest: Experience a scenic area with a remarkable concentration of petrified wood. Jasper Forest presents an opportunity to immerse yourself in the vastness and richness of the park’s petrified wood formations.
- Agate Bridge: Encounter the natural wonder of Agate Bridge, a 40-foot petrified log that spans a gully, forming a stunning natural bridge. This iconic attraction has been stabilized with a concrete beam, allowing visitors to marvel at its remarkable structure.
- Blue Mesa Trail: Embark on a 1-mile loop trail that leads you through mesmerizing badlands hills with blueish clay and occasional sightings of petrified wood. It offers a unique perspective on the park’s diverse landscapes.
- Newspaper Rock and Puerco Pueblo: Discover the rich cultural heritage of the area. Newspaper Rock features an ancestral Native American petroglyph panel with over 650 drawings and symbols carved into desert varnish. Just a mile north lies Puerco Pueblo, where you can explore ancient Puebloan ruins and witness captivating petroglyphs.
It’s very important to know that it is illegal to collect petrified wood in the national park. For good reason, the park service asks that you leave the rocks as is so that future generations can enjoy them.
Key Highlights on the North Side of the Park
The north side of the park is located just north of Interstate 40. Near where the main park road crosses the interstate is the old roadbed of Historic Route 66. Today, only traces remain of the so-called Mother Road or Main Street of America, including a line of weathered telephone poles. The rusty frame of a 1932 Studebaker sits near the park service viewpoint.
The biggest highlights of the park’s north side include a series of scenic views of the Painted Desert, which is named for the colorful sediments of the Chinle Formation. Located near Kachina Point is the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark. Today, the inn is a museum with restored murals by Hopi artist Fred Kaboutie and exhibits about the building’s history, Route 66, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC constructed many of the buildings, trails, and roads for the original national monument in the 1930s.
Here are the key attractions to explore on the north side:
- Historic Route 66 Remnants: As you traverse the main park road, you’ll come across remnants of Historic Route 66. This iconic highway, also known as the “Mother Road” or “Main Street of America,” holds historical significance and offers glimpses into the past. Weathered telephone poles and the rusty frame of a 1932 Studebaker are among the remnants you may encounter.
- Painted Desert Views: The north side of the park offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Painted Desert. Named for its vibrant and varied sedimentary layers, this vast expanse of colorful badlands showcases nature’s artistic palette. Take in the awe-inspiring sights and immerse yourself in the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
- Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark: Located near Kachina Point, the Painted Desert Inn is a designated National Historic Landmark. Originally a trading post and later transformed into an inn, it now serves as a museum. Explore the restored murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie and delve into exhibits highlighting the inn’s history, the significance of Route 66, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which played a role in the park’s development.
- Painted Desert Visitor Center: Situated near the park’s northern entrance station, the Painted Desert Visitor Center provides valuable information for visitors. Obtain park maps, brochures, and details about trail conditions. You can also catch the park film, which offers insights into the natural and cultural wonders of Petrified Forest National Park.
When to visit Petrified Forest National Park
The park is open year-round from 8am to 5pm, except for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Most of the park is located around 5,500 feet in elevation, and the climate is fairly moderate, meaning you can visit the park at almost any time of year.
However, the vast majority of visitors come during summer road trips. Temperatures from June through August typically range from the high-80s to the low-90s. Because of the relatively short length of most hikes, summer is a fine time to visit. But be prepared for very sunny conditions and bring a hat, sunscreen, and possibly lightweight long-sleeve clothing.
Spring and fall are excellent times to visit Petrified Forest National Park. The weather is very pleasant at this time of year. Temperatures range from the 60s to 70s between March and May and from the low 80s to high 50s between September and November. Be aware that during summer monsoon season, from roughly July through mid-September, frequent and sudden afternoon thunderstorms are possible.
How Long Should I Plan for a Visit?
The ideal length of time for your visit here really depends on individual preferences and interests. However, most visitors find that a visit lasting from a few hours to a full day is sufficient to explore the key highlights of the park.
For a shorter visit, spending a few hours allows you to visit the Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitor Center, take a stroll on the Giant Logs Trail, and witness the beauty of the Crystal Forest Trail. These attractions provide a glimpse into the unique petrified wood formations and offer a satisfying experience within a limited timeframe.
If you have more time to spare, extending your visit to a full day enables you to explore additional trails, such as the Long Logs Trail and the Blue Mesa Trail, which offer different perspectives of the park’s landscapes. You can also take the opportunity to visit cultural sites like Agate House, Newspaper Rock, and Puerco Pueblo, which provide insights into the region’s rich history.
The flexibility of your visit will allow you to tailor your experience ultimately based on how many of the key attractions you want to explore. You may choose to focus solely on the petrified wood formations, or you may want to prioritize the cultural and historical aspects of the park. Additionally, for those of you who have a keen interest in geology or photography, you should plan for a longer visit to thoroughly explore and capture the park’s unique features.
Petrified Forest National Park is home to stunning petrified wood formations, vibrant landscapes, and captivating cultural sites. With attractions like the Rainbow Forest Museum, Giant Logs Trail, Agate House, Crystal Forest Trail, and Painted Desert views, the park offers a unique blend of natural wonders and historical significance.
You can explore remnants of Historic Route 66, admire the panoramic vistas of the Painted Desert, and discover the rich heritage of the Painted Desert Inn.
Considering the park’s accessibility, diverse attractions, and educational exhibits, Petrified Forest National Park is undoubtedly worth visiting. It offers an unforgettable experience for nature enthusiasts, history lovers, and anyone seeking to marvel at the wonders of our planet’s geological past.
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Cover image: Jasper Forest. NPS/Andrew V. Kearns