The state of Arizona lies in a region of the U.S. that is overflowing with breathtaking and varied landscapes. At first glance, the desert appears homogenous, but after driving for a few minutes, the view changes utterly. Nowhere is this geological variation more apparent than in the Petrified Forest National Park. Encompassing over 170 square miles (440 square kilometers), the park includes numerous habitats, land formations, fossils, petroglyphs, museum exhibits, and wildlife. Bring your camera, and your sense of adventure.
Petrified Forest National Park is located in the northeastern part of Arizona, just a few miles from the city of Holbrook. There are two entrances to the park; one on the north side, exit 311 of I-40; and one on the south side of the park, along Highway 180 at Petrified Forest Road. Detailed maps and directions are available through the National Park Service website (See below link).
Operating hours vary slightly by season, but in general the grounds and buildings are open dawn to dusk, 364 days a year (the park closes December 25th). Park passes can be purchased at either entrance gate. Each vehicle and its occupants costs 20 USD for a 7-day pass. A motorcycle and passenger(s), a bicycle, or a pedestrian costs 10 USD for 7 days. A full year pass for one vehicle is 30 USD. There are no 1-day passes. There are no campgrounds in the park, but a limited number of free backpacking permits are issued. Check with the park for availability. Leave no trace camping is the strict policy. Dogs are welcome on a leash everywhere except inside the buildings.
Plan on taking as much time as you can spare for this park. At the very least a full day. Just getting from one park entrance to the other is a 26 mile (42 kilometer) drive.
A wealth of facilities
The park is so vast, there are three visitors’ centers. At the north entrance, the Painted Desert Visitor Center includes a gas station, and is the site of the only restaurant in the park, the Painted Desert Diner, open 8am to 3pm every day. Roughly 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) past the northern entrance along Petrified Forest Road, the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark used to serve as an Inn along Historic Route 66, but is now a museum. Finally, the Rainbow Forest Museum lies near the southern entrance to the park. All three locations offer restrooms, information, books, gift shops, and a free film screening of Timeless Impressions – a film about the park.
On top of the visitors’ centers, a range of activities are always being scheduled. The park offers art exhibits, cultural performances, and guided tours. There are 7 hiking trails, ranging from 0.3 miles (.05 kilometers) to 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers), and designed to bring you up close and personal with some of the great natural features on the property.
There are so many wonderful and impressive things to see in the park, from archeological gems, to geological ones, to just the beauty of the habitat and the wildlife. Ideally, it would take several days to really explore the place. However, it is possible to get through the most iconic treasures in one day by following the main path, Petrified Forest Road, and stopping at each marked point of interest.
I recommend starting at the north end of the park and working south. This leaves the Petrified Forest for last. The northern end of the park lies in the Painted Desert. These famous, colorful badlands are every bit as stunning as you’ve heard. In some places, the colors are so bright in their contrast, it seems impossible.
While there is a restaurant on the premises, even if you plan on eating there, it’s still a good idea to bring plenty of snacks, and even a picnic; if you plan on taking your time through the park, it really will take several hours, unless you’re rushing.
Some fun motor history
Petrified Forest National Park is bisected by what used to be the famous Route 66. Where the park road bisects the historic one, a tribute to automotive history lies on a small mound, just off the path. This is a charming opportunity for pictures.
Catch up on the not-so-latest at Newspaper Rock
Newspaper Rock is a site in the park where hundreds of ancient glyphs appear in a concentrated area of boulders. These carvings would have been made 650 – 2000 years ago by the local Puebloans. While the carvings are untranslatable, there is something eerily familiar about looking at a carving made centuries, or millennia ago, and feeling the human connection that spans the eons.
Keep an eye out for wildlife
While there are almost countless landscapes and exhibits to distract you, don’t forget that there are animals who make their homes here. Living in a protected space, they’re not particularly skittish, and it’s not uncommon to have pronghorn standing right next to the car. You might also see coyote, lizards, any number of small rodents, and mule deer, just to name a few.
The Petrified Forest: tons upon tons of jewels
For me, the most incomprehensible part of the park was its namesake, the Petrified Forest. Spanning miles and miles, these ancient felled trees were covered in mudslides, and over the centuries, their forms were slowly replaced with minerals such as silica, pyrite, opal, and calcite, until, almost magically, through time and pressure, they’re transformed into semi-precious crystal replicas of their former selves. The sheer volume of massive rough gems scattered throughout the landscape is utterly mind-boggling.
It’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to take home a piece, as a souvenir. Of course, that would be very illegal. Fortunately, the gift shop has plenty of choices in petrified wood samples.
Don’t miss this massive, gorgeous park!
The Painted Desert is central to many of Arizona’s other prime attractions. 178 miles (286 kilometers) from the Grand Canyon, 203 miles (326 kilometers) from Phoenix, 137 miles (220 kilometers) from Sedona, and 110 miles (177 kilometers) from Flagstaff. Whatever your travel goals in the great American desert, be sure to include the Painted Desert on your itinerary.
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