Petrified Forest National Park: The Complete Guide

Petrified Forest National Park's painted desert

Courtesy of Petrified ForestNPS

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Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park, AZ 86028, USA

Located just off I-40 in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park has one of the largest concentrations of petrified logs in the world. 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. 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.

Geography & History of Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park takes its name from logs that washed into an ancient river system more than 200 million years ago. The logs 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.

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.

A Spanish explorer is said to have named the region El Desierto Pintado, or the Painted Desert, when he came through as part of an expedition that sought a passage between New Mexico and the Pacific Coast. In 1853, the U.S. government surveyed a path along the 35th parallel to the ocean, then hired Edward F. Beale to build a wagon route a few years later.

With the wagon route came homesteaders, including John Muir, who settled in the present-day ghost town of Adamana in 1905. Muir fell in love with the area and asked his friend, President Teddy Roosevelt, to designate it a national monument in 1906. The national monument became a national park in 1962.

petrified logs

Courtesy of Petrified ForestNPS

Things to Do

From marveling at a 10-foot-wide petrified log to taking in Blue Mesa, here are the top things to do during your visit to Petrified Forest National Park.

Orient Yourself at the Visitor Centers

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.

See the Highlights Along a Scenic Drive

Most visitors experience the Petrified Forest by car. 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. Stretch your legs by walking the 0.3-mile, paved trail to see the knee-high remains of the pueblo’s 100-plus rooms, 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.

One of the most scenic spots in the park, Blue Mesa is tinged blue, purple, and gray by bentonite clay. It’s best experienced by getting out of the car and hiking the 1-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.

If you came to see petrified logs, the next few stops are a must. Agate Bridge is an impressive 110-foot petrified log that spans a gully, while the Jasper Forest overlook offers panoramic views of the glimmering fossils. To see even more up close, hike the quarter-mile, paved Crystal Forest loop.

Go on a Hike

Several trails start at the Rainbow Forest Museum parking lot. The paved, 0.4-mile Giant Logs loop features Old Faithful—a 10-foot-wide petrified log—as well as other large, tree-shaped hunks of quartz. Long Logs is a 1.6-mile loop through one of the park’s highest concentration of fossilized logs, while the Agate House Trail leads to an eight-room pueblo constructed of petrified wood. The Long Logs and Agate House trails can be combined for a 2.6-mile hike.

Hiking (and camping) is allowed in the backcountry with a permit.

Explore the Park by Bicycle or Horseback

Instead of driving, 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.

Go Geocaching

Geocaching is popular at the park as well. Download a geocaching app before you visit to search for geocaches placed by park staff.

Time Your Visit with an Event

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.


Courtesy of Petrified ForestNPS

Getting 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. If you are traveling from Phoenix, head north on I-17 to Flagstaff, and go east on I-40. Watch for exit 311.

Or, if you are starting from the East Valley in the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area, you can take Hwy. 87 north to Payson. Turn right on Hwy. 260 to Heber, and then take 377 towards Holbrook. Just before entering Holbrook, turn right on Hwy. 180. From Albuquerque, take I-40 west to exit 311.

Petrified Forest National 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 Hwy. 180. If you enter at Hwy. 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.

The visitor centers are open every day except Christmas from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to enter the park is $25 per vehicle and is valid for seven days.

Colorful Petrified Forest

 Courtesy of Petrified ForestNPS

Tips for Visiting Petrified Forest National Park

  • Cell service is generally available throughout the park, including much of the backcountry.
  • 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 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