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With so many amazing national parks in the American Southwest, it’s not a question of if you should visit the area. The question is, instead, how many parks can you squeeze onto your itinerary?
When we were plotting our southwest road trip, we noticed that the route between Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon took us right by the Petrified Forest in northern Arizona. “Why not?” we thought. “We might as well go have a look.” It only added an hour to our drive.
In Petrified Forest National Park, we saw some of the most beautiful landscapes in the United States, viewed pieces of history from hundreds of years ago, and explored one of the world’s largest concentrations of fascinating, colorful petrified trees. The open expanses, peaceful atmosphere, and unique Petrified Forest National Park formations make it a lovely stop on any Western road trip.
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The Petrified Forest
Before I knew much about petrified wood, I pictured the Petrified Forest as, well, a forest. I imagined petrified trees dotting the landscape, standing up straight as living trees do. But of course, these ancient fossilized trees are no longer standing.
According to the national park service website, the area’s large deposits of petrified wood are due to a river system that dominated the area over two hundred million years ago. Ancient trees along the river died and flowed into log jams downstream. Minerals from the ash of nearby volcanoes gradually replaced the organic material in the plants, and the “trees” we see today are actually made mostly of quartz, with iron and manganese adding color.
The Painted Desert
When we first entered Petrified Forest National Park, I was stunned to realize that it was a park within a park. Entering from the north, the first part of the park that greets visitors is actually the Painted Desert. Those sweeping, colorful vistas are exactly what I hoped for our family to experience when we first planned our trip to the Southwest. Even when we were around other tourists, the wide open spaces of the desert brought a quiet serenity to everything. I recommend that most families with kids stick to the gorgeous views seen from the desert overlooks, but experienced backcountry hikers can trek down into the desert for a closer peek.
Preparing for Your Visit
If you only have time for a quick stop at Petrified Forest National Park, enter at the park’s south end and walk the Giant Logs Trail behind the Rainbow Forest Museum; it’s one of the best places to see the most impressive specimens of petrified trees. Our family had set aside a couple of hours for a visit, so we entered at the north end of the park and drove along the 28-mile-long main park road (aptly named “Petrified Forest Road”), stopping at short trails and overlooks along the way.
If you want to see as much as possible, then plan for a whole day of hiking and exploring–but be mindful of the issues posed by elevation, heat, and exhaustion, especially for young children. Be sure to take plenty of water for your visit and for any hikes you choose to do; drinking water is available only at the north and south entrances of the park.
Whether you enter the park at the northern or southern entrance, one of the first things you’ll see is a visitors’ area with several buildings. These centers are great places to stock up on snacks, which you will not find in the rest of the park. You can also pick up park maps and guides. If you don’t have a specific itinerary in mind, check in with a ranger to see what they recommend for your group.
Things to Do At Petrified Forest National Park
There are a variety of hiking trails throughout the park, from family-friendly, .3-mile paved loops to rugged longer hikes of 7 or 8 miles. In the park’s north section, try the Painted Desert Rim Trail between Tawa Point and Kachina Point if you want to see more of the beautiful desert landscape. In areas with petrified wood, Crystal Forest is one of the more popular trails. We saw several other tourists during our visit to this spot, but there was plenty of space for everyone, and the trail provided some of the best up-close views of colorful petrified wood. We also enjoyed the short Giant Logs Trail behind the Rainbow Forest Museum; however, it was under construction and a bit hard to navigate when we were there.
We had the best time seeing the petroglyphs carved throughout the park. Newspaper Rock, with its hundreds of carvings, was an intriguing sight. However, my favorite petroglyphs were on the Puerco Pueblo Trail, where a variety of archaeological finds can be seen in a short walk. Puerco Pueblo Trail is an accessible, paved path that winds through the 600-year-old remnants of a pueblo community and several giant rocks carved with shapes and drawings. Even though this area has fewer rock carvings than Newspaper Rock, we found we could get a much closer look at them. We even got to see a park ranger checking the petroglyphs for damage.
Agate House can be seen via a 2-mile, round-trip hike. The house was originally built between 700 and 1000 years ago by the Ancestral Puebloan people and shows the use of petrified wood as a building material. The foundations of the house were excavated in the 1930s, and the walls were reconstructed at that time under the supervision of an archaeologist. The Agate House Trail can be accessed via the Long Logs Trail near the Rainbow Forest Museum parking area.
Painted Desert Inn
Be sure to stop by the Painted Desert Inn, a national historic landmark that once provided overnight lodging for Route 66 travelers. The inn was first built from wood in the 1920s, with the adobe facade added during a renovation by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The building is now a museum with historical displays, preserved murals from Hopi artists, and a small gift shop.
If you are visiting the park Wednesday through Sunday, then don’t miss the chance to see paleontologists at work in the Museum Demonstration Lab at the Painted Desert Visitor Center. You can watch scientists do research and even chat with them through a special two-way speaker. Kids have the chance to complete a Junior Paleontologist booklet and earn a badge.
The Gift Shop
Stop by one of the park gift shops for your opportunity to take home your own piece of petrified wood. Petrified wood cannot be removed from the park, but the gift shops sell pieces of petrified wood legally acquired from private lands.
Tucked just off Interstate 40 in Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park offers a rarity — a national park with no crowds. Beautiful lands and ancient wonders make this stop worth the short journey off the beaten path.
Where to Eat
The Painted Desert Visitors’ Center at the north end of the park has a full restaurant, the Painted Desert Diner, which offers burgers and sandwiches. I saw ice cream advertised at the Painted Desert Inn, but it was unavailable when we stopped by.
When we got to the southern end of the park, we were a little dismayed to find that there were no lunch options, only a gift shop with a few snacks. If you’re at this end of the park and need a meal, head to Holbrook – the closest town – for fast food and sit-down restaurants.
When You Go
As you plan your trip, remember that Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time–but some Native American lands do. This means you’ll experience time changes as you drive throughout the state.
The closest airports to Petrified Forest National Park are Albuquerque International Sunport and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The Albuquerque airport is about 3 hours away and offers direct flights from Los Angeles on American, Delta, and Southwest. The Phoenix airport is about 3.5 hours away and offers flights from Los Angeles on American, Delta, Southwest, and United Airlines.
You’ll want to rent a car or drive your own vehicle when you plan to visit the Petrified Forest. The north entrance to the park is just off Interstate 40, and the south entrance is located off Highway 180. The scenic drive through the park’s main road will take about one hour without stops.
An excellent discount site for flights (and cars, hotels) is Expedia! This is where we start our research for the best deals!
Where to Stay Near Petrified Forest National Park
The only camping allowed in Petrified Forest National Park is backcountry, which requires hiking at least a mile from your vehicle.
During our trip, we stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn in Gallup, New Mexico, which is about an hour away from the park. This allowed us to stop at the Petrified Forest on our way from Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon, and we had the extra fun of following Route 66 for part of our journey.
The Petrified Forest is an unsung stop compared to the popularity of other parks in the area, but that’s one of the best things about this beautiful destination. Being able to enjoy the wonders of national parks without feeling crowded or rushed is rare these days, but this short journey off the beaten path serves up beautiful views and ancient wonders in a serene, natural setting that is worth the drive.
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