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, Petrified Forest is definitely worth a visit. The park is also a great stop when looking for more Arizona places to visit or when combined with other national parks, monuments, and landmarks in the Four Corners region. 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.
Petrified Forest 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 to do at Petrified Forest National Park: South Side
By far, the biggest highlight at the park is seeing petrified wood formations. About 225 million years ago, conifer trees from a tropical forest were swept into a flowing river. The trees were quickly buried by volcanic ash and sediments that today we call the Chile Formation. Over time, the trees mineralized, with silica replacing the organic matter, and eventually fractured into logs. Millions of years later, the Chinle Formation eroded to reveal these many logs of petrified wood.
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.
To see these petrified logs, you need to head to the park’s southern side. Consider starting at the Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitor Center, which offers paleontology exhibits and a short film about the park. Just behind the museum, there’s the Giant Logs Trail. A short 0.4-mile loop, this paved path includes some of the largest and most colorful logs of petrified wood in the park.
Starting nearby, from the Rainbow Forest Museum parking area trailhead, there are two other short trails. The Long Logs trail is a 1.6-mile loop that offers one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the park. The Agate House trail is a 2-mile round trip to a partial reconstruction of an ancient eight-room pueblo built from petrified wood.
Continuing north on the main park road leads to a trio of interesting highlights. The Crystal Forest Trail is a 0.75-mile loop that’s known for beautiful crystals embedded in petrified logs. Nearby, is Jasper Forest, a scenic area with a high concentration of petrified wood. Just up the road is Agate Bridge, a natural bridge formed by a 40-foot petrified log that spans a gully. This petrified bridge has been stabilized with a concrete beam underneath, and it is one of the most popular spots in the park.
For a slightly different experience, the Blue Mesa Trail is a 1-mile loop that takes hikers through badlands hills of blueish clay with some petrified wood. A pair of nearby sites include Newspaper Rock, an ancestral Native American petroglyph panel with over 650 drawings and symbols carved into desert varnish. Meanwhile, one mile north, is Puerco Pueblo, where a 0.3-mile loop path leads to the ruins of ancestral Puebloan homes and to views of petroglyphs.
What to do at Petrified Forest National Park: North Side
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.
Finally, the Painted Desert Visitor Center is located near the park’s northern entrance station. Here you can obtain information, purchase supplies, and watch the park film.
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.
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. 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.
We hope these tips have been helpful for deciding if Petrified Forest is worth visiting and for planning your trip to this national park! There’s plenty more to share, so if you have a tip to share, please leave it in the comments below!
Want some added fun as you work through your national park adventures? Check out this unique collection of scratch off maps of the United States and US National Parks. Also, if you’re interested in a free downloadable travel journal and national park checklist, we have one for you: CLICK HERE!
Cover image: Jasper Forest. NPS/Andrew V. Kearns