Petrified Forest National Park: The Complete Guide

Petrified Forest National Park's painted desert

Petrified Forest NPS

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Petrified Forest National Park

Address
Petrified Forest National Park, AZ 86028, USA

In northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park has one of the largest concentrations of petrified logs in the world. The logs washed into an ancient river system more than 200 million years ago and became mired in sediment and debris, which cut off oxygen to the wood and slowed its decay. Over the next centuries, minerals were absorbed into the wood until the organic material decayed and quartz remained.

The 221,390-acre park also contains more than 800 archeological and historic sites, including two Puebloan structures, petroglyphs, and a segment of historic Route 66. Nomads first traversed here more than 13,000 years ago. Eventually, people settled to farm the grasslands, and in 1100 A.D., Puebloans built the still-standing Agate House. A hundred years later, they constructed the Puerco Pueblo, which they abandoned for unknown reasons in the late 1300s.

Most visitors drive through the colorful landscape, stopping at its scenic overlooks and hiking its maintained trails, but it is popular with backcountry hikers and campers, too.

petrified logs

Petrified Forest NPS

Things to Do

Petrified Forest National Park has two visitor centers on either end of the 28-mile main park road. Since Painted Desert Visitor Center is just off I-40 at exit 311, most visitors begin their trip with the 18-minute orientation film there. The Rainbow Forest Museum, which serves as the southern entrance’s visitor center, contains paleontological exhibits, including prehistoric animal skeletons. Most visitors choose to explore the park by car, but you can also cycle along the park’s 28 paved miles, or explore the backcountry on horseback. While you’ll have to bring your own horse and get a free permit from one of the visitor centers to do so, it’s a great way to gain a new perspective on the painted desert.

Best Hikes & Trails

Several trails start at the Rainbow Forest Museum parking lot, most of which are under 2 miles. There is a shelter at the intersection of this trail and the Long Logs trail if you need to sit in the shade and both trails can be combined for a 2.6-mile hike.

  • Giant Logs Loop: This .4-mile loop features Old Faithful—a 10-foot-wide petrified log, as well as other large, tree-shaped blocks of quartz.
  • Long Logs: You can take this a 1.6-mile loop through one of the park’s highest concentrations of fossilized logs.
  • Agate House Trail: This two-mile trail leads to an eight-room pueblo constructed of petrified wood, which stands on top of a small hill.
  • Blue Mesa Trail: One of the most scenic spots in the park—tinged blue, purple, and gray by bentonite clay—this mile-long loop takes you through the badlands on a paved and gravel trail.
  • Puerco Pueblo: Stretch your legs by walking the 0.3-mile, paved trail to see the knee-high remains of the pueblo’s 100-plus rooms

Scenic Drives

Most visitors experience the Petrified Forest by car, along a 28-mile stretch from one end of the park to the other. North of I-40, eight overlooks provide views of the park’s colorful badlands, buttes, and mesa. Meanwhile, the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, a trading-post-turned-museum, displays exhibits on recent human history. Don’t miss the rusty 1932 Studebaker just before the road dips under I-40; it marks where Route 66 once cut through the park.

South of I-40, drivers first encounter the ruins of Puerco Pueblo, then continue to Newspaper Rock. From an overlook, you can see more than 600 petroglyphs, some of which date back 2,000 years. If you have the time, stop at The Tepees overlook to snap a few photos of the tepee-shaped rock formations before heading to Blue Mesa. This part of the park is best experienced by getting out of the car and hiking the one-mile trail through the rock formations, but you can also drive a 3.5-mile loop road and take in the view from the four overlooks. After that, stop at Agate Bridge, a 110-foot petrified log that spans a gully, and the Jasper Forest overlook, which provides a panoramic view of the glittering fossils.

petroglyphs

Petrified Forest NPS

Where to Camp

There are no campgrounds within the park, but backcountry camping is allowed with a permit. The permit is free and can be picked up at the visitors center on the day of your trip. Camping groups are limited to eight people and lighting fires is not allowed. Check the official park website for directions to designated backcountry camping areas in the Painted Desert, Zone 5, and the Rainbow Forest.

Where to Stay Nearby

Holbrook is the closest town to Petrified Forest National Park. Here you can find many motels offering accommodation 20 miles west of the park along I-40. Most are your basic roadside hotels, but there are a couple of standouts. Although you might notice the Painted Desert Inn on the map, this historic hotel built out of petrified wood functions only as a museum now.

How to Get There

You will need a car to explore Petrified Forest National Park since there is no public transportation to the park or shuttle service through it. The park has one main artery. If you enter from I-40 and drive the entire 28 miles, you will end up at the Rainbow Forest Museum, just off Highway 180. If you enter from Highway 180, you will end near I-40. From the Rainbow Forest Museum, it is approximately a 25-minute drive to return to Heber and I-40.

From Phoenix, head north on I-17 to Flagstaff, and go east on I-40. Watch for exit 311. If you are starting from the East Valley in the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area, you can take Highway 87 north to Payson. Turn right on Highway 260 to Heber, and then take 377 towards Holbrook. Just before entering Holbrook, turn right on Highway 180. From Albuquerque, take I-40 west to exit 311.

Colorful Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest NPS

Accessibility

Because most of the park can be seen by car and most trails are short and paved—although some can get a bit steep—Petrified Forest National park is accessible for people with disabilities. The best trail for wheelchair users is Puerco Pueblo, which leads to the remains of a hundred-room pueblo. The Agate House trail is partially paved, but the rest of the trail has a rough surface that may only work for some wheelchair users. Although the first half of the Long Logs Trail is paved, it is not recommended for some wheelchair users due to the narrow turns and steep gradients.

There are numerous accessible restrooms at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, Chinde Point picnic area, Rainbow Forest Museum, and more. Both visitor centers show educational films with closed captions and provide touch tables for hands-on exploration of fossils.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Cell service is generally available throughout the park, including much of the backcountry.
  • Petrified Forest National Park holds Native American cultural demonstrations and displays artwork produced by its artist-in-residence program throughout the year. As an International Dark Sky Park, it also hosts astronomy events.
  • Removing petrified wood from the park is not only illegal but allegedly comes with a curse. The Rainbow Forest Museum has an exhibit dedicated to people who have taken a piece and subsequently experienced everything from broken bones to financial ruin, divorce, and even death.
  • Petrified Forest National Park participates in the dog-friendly BARK Ranger program, which comes with perks such as treats and park-specific dog tags (available for purchase) for your four-legged friend.
  • For a deeper understanding of the park’s unique landscape and history, sign up for a class offered by the Petrified Forest Field Institute.
  • Wildflowers bloom in the park from March through October; May, July, and August are typically the best months for viewing.
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The Complete Guide to Petrified Forest National Park