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An Adventurer’s Guide to Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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Established 1962

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is a geological wonderland featuring ancient petrified wood, colorful badlands, and rich cultural history. Visitors can explore scenic drives, hiking trails, and fascinating archaeological sites.



Overview

Petrified Forest National Park, located in northeastern Arizona, is a mesmerizing expanse of natural wonders, historical significance, and geological marvels. Spanning over 220,000 acres, the park is renowned for its vast deposits of petrified wood, colorful badlands, ancient petroglyphs, and diverse ecosystems. Visitors to Petrified Forest are greeted by an otherworldly landscape that captures the imagination and offers a unique glimpse into Earth’s distant past.

The park’s name derives from its most famous feature: the large quantities of petrified wood scattered throughout the area. These ancient logs, once part of towering prehistoric forests, have turned to stone over millions of years, creating a spectacular display of natural artistry. Beyond the petrified wood, the park is also home to the Painted Desert, a stunning region of vibrant, multi-hued badlands that seem to shift color with the changing light.

Whether you’re a geology enthusiast, a history buff, a nature lover, or simply an adventurer seeking new experiences, Petrified Forest National Park has something to offer. This comprehensive guide will explore the park’s key features, from its intriguing history and rich ecology to its unique geology and the best ways to enjoy your visit.

Getting to Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest National Park is conveniently accessible from several major cities in the southwestern United States. Located just off Interstate 40, it is a relatively easy destination to reach by car.

By Car
  • From Phoenix, Arizona: The park is approximately 225 miles northeast of Phoenix. The drive takes about 3.5 to 4 hours. Take Interstate 17 north to Flagstaff, then switch to Interstate 40 east, which leads directly to the park.
  • From Albuquerque, New Mexico: The park is about 200 miles west of Albuquerque, a drive of around 3 hours. Take Interstate 40 west, and you will reach the park entrance.
  • From Flagstaff, Arizona: Petrified Forest is about 115 miles east of Flagstaff. The drive takes around 1.5 to 2 hours along Interstate 40 east.
By Air

The nearest major airports are in Phoenix, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. From these airports, visitors can rent a car and drive to the park. Flagstaff also has a regional airport with connecting flights from Phoenix, which can be a convenient option for travelers looking to reduce driving time.

Public Transportation

Public transportation options to Petrified Forest are limited. However, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line stops in Winslow and Gallup, both relatively close to the park. From there, visitors would need to rent a car to reach the park.

Park Entrances

Petrified Forest has two main entrances:

  • North Entrance: Located off Interstate 40, this entrance is near the Painted Desert Visitor Center.
  • South Entrance: Located off U.S. Highway 180, this entrance leads to the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center.

Both entrances are connected by the 28-mile-long park road, which traverses the length of the park and offers numerous scenic overlooks and points of interest.

Human History

The human history of Petrified Forest National Park is as rich and varied as its natural history, with evidence of human habitation and use dating back over 13,000 years. From ancient indigenous cultures to early European explorers and settlers, the park has been a significant location for a diverse array of peoples.

Ancient Inhabitants

The earliest known inhabitants of the region were Paleo-Indians, who arrived in the area over 13,000 years ago. These nomadic hunter-gatherers left behind a variety of artifacts, including stone tools and projectile points, indicating their presence and subsistence activities in the region.

By around 2,000 years ago, the area was inhabited by the Basketmaker cultures, who were part of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) tradition. These early agriculturalists cultivated corn, beans, and squash, and they constructed pit houses and storage structures. They also created elaborate petroglyphs and pictographs, many of which can still be seen today at sites like Newspaper Rock and Puerco Pueblo.

Ancestral Puebloans and the Mogollon Culture

Between 1,200 and 1,400 CE, the region was occupied by the Ancestral Puebloans and the Mogollon culture. These groups built more permanent structures, including large pueblos with multiple rooms and kivas (ceremonial rooms). Puerco Pueblo, one of the largest archaeological sites in the park, contains the remains of a pueblo that once had over 100 rooms and housed a significant population.

The inhabitants of this period were skilled artisans, producing pottery, textiles, and intricate jewelry. They engaged in long-distance trade, acquiring goods such as turquoise, shell, and obsidian from distant regions. The petroglyphs and rock art from this era depict a wide range of subjects, including animals, human figures, and abstract designs, offering insights into their daily lives and spiritual beliefs.

European Exploration and Settlement

The first Europeans to explore the region were the Spanish, who arrived in the 16th century. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that American explorers and settlers began to take a significant interest in the area. The U.S. Army’s expeditions in the mid-1800s, led by figures like Lieutenant Amiel Whipple and Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, documented the petrified wood and other natural features, bringing the region to the attention of scientists and the public.

The arrival of the railroad in the late 19th century made the area more accessible, and the petrified wood became a popular attraction for tourists and collectors. Unfortunately, this led to widespread looting and damage to the petrified wood deposits.

Establishment of the National Park

In response to the rampant destruction of the petrified wood, efforts to protect the area began in the early 20th century. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Petrified Forest as a national monument to preserve its unique natural and cultural resources. The monument was later expanded and redesignated as Petrified Forest National Park in 1962.

Today, the park not only protects the petrified wood but also preserves a rich tapestry of human history, with numerous archaeological sites, historic structures, and cultural artifacts that offer a window into the lives of those who have called this region home.

Ecology

Despite its arid environment, Petrified Forest National Park is home to a surprisingly diverse array of plant and animal life. The park’s ecosystems range from grasslands and shrublands to riparian areas, each supporting a unique assemblage of species adapted to the harsh desert conditions.

Flora

The park’s vegetation is primarily characterized by semi-arid grasslands and desert scrub, with plant species that have evolved to survive in the challenging climate.

  • Grasses: Dominant grass species include blue grama, Indian ricegrass, and galleta grass. These hardy grasses are well adapted to the dry conditions and provide essential habitat and food sources for wildlife.
  • Shrubs and Trees: Common shrubs include fourwing saltbush, rabbitbrush, and sagebrush. The park also contains several species of cacti, such as prickly pear and cholla. Juniper and pinyon pine are the primary tree species, found mainly in the higher elevations and along washes.
  • Wildflowers: In the spring and early summer, the park is adorned with a variety of wildflowers, including sunflowers, lupines, and evening primroses. These blooms add bursts of color to the landscape and attract pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Fauna

The animal life in Petrified Forest is equally diverse, with species adapted to the desert’s extreme temperatures and limited water availability.

  • Mammals: Common mammals in the park include black-tailed jackrabbits, desert cottontails, and various rodents such as kangaroo rats and pocket mice. Predators like coyotes, bobcats, and gray foxes are also present, though they are more elusive.
  • Birds: The park is a haven for birdwatchers, with over 200 species recorded. Common birds include ravens, rock wrens, and horned larks. Raptors such as red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and golden eagles can often be seen soaring overhead. Migratory birds, including warblers and flycatchers, pass through the park during their seasonal journeys.
  • Reptiles and Amphibians: Reptiles are well represented, with species like the desert spiny lizard, western rattlesnake, and gopher snake. Amphibians are less common but can be found in riparian areas and during the rainy season, including the Great Plains toad and the Arizona tiger salamander.
  • Invertebrates: Insects and other invertebrates play crucial roles in the park’s ecosystems. Notable species include ants, beetles, butterflies, and spiders. The tarantula, a large and hairy spider, is a notable inhabitant of the desert floor.
Conservation Efforts

The park’s staff and volunteers work tirelessly to protect and preserve the delicate ecosystems within Petrified Forest. Efforts include habitat restoration, invasive species management, and monitoring of wildlife populations. Education and outreach programs help raise awareness about the importance of conserving these unique desert environments.

Geology

The geological history of Petrified Forest National Park is a fascinating tale that spans over 200 million years. The park’s stunning landscapes, petrified wood, and colorful badlands are the result of complex geological processes that have shaped the region over millennia.

Triassic Period

The story of Petrified Forest’s geology begins in the Late Triassic period, around 225 million years ago. During this time, the area was part of a vast floodplain near the equator, dominated by lush forests and inhabited by a diverse array of plants and animals. The climate was warm and humid, with numerous rivers and streams crisscrossing the landscape.

Petrification Process

The petrified wood that gives the park its name is the result of a remarkable process of fossilization. When trees died and fell, they were buried by sediment, often in river channels or floodplains. Over time, silica-rich groundwater percolated through the buried wood, gradually replacing the organic material with silica minerals such as quartz. This process, known as permineralization, preserved the cellular structure of the wood, turning it into stone.

Chinle Formation

The primary geological formation in the park is the Chinle Formation, a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks deposited during the Late Triassic. The Chinle Formation is composed of various rock types, including mudstone, sandstone, siltstone, and conglomerate. These rocks display a wide range of colors, from reds and purples to blues and greens, creating the striking landscapes of the Painted Desert.

Erosion and Weathering

Over millions of years, tectonic forces uplifted the region, exposing the Chinle Formation to erosion and weathering. Wind, water, and temperature fluctuations gradually wore away the softer sedimentary rocks, creating the park’s characteristic badlands and revealing the petrified logs buried within.

Painted Desert

One of the most visually stunning features of Petrified Forest National Park is the Painted Desert, a vast expanse of colorful badlands that stretches across the northern part of the park. The vibrant hues of the Painted Desert are the result of varying mineral content in the sedimentary rocks. Iron oxides produce red, orange, and yellow tones, while manganese oxides create shades of purple and blue. The interplay of light and shadow throughout the day further enhances the landscape’s kaleidoscopic appearance.

Fossils

In addition to petrified wood, the park is rich in other fossils, providing valuable insights into the ancient ecosystems that once thrived here. Fossilized remains of plants, insects, and vertebrates, including early dinosaurs, amphibians, and reptiles, have been discovered within the Chinle Formation. These fossils help paleontologists reconstruct the region’s prehistoric environments and understand the evolution of life on Earth.

Best Places to Stay

While Petrified Forest National Park does not have in-park lodging or campgrounds, there are several options for accommodations in the surrounding areas. Whether you prefer camping under the stars or the comfort of a hotel room, you’ll find suitable options to make your stay enjoyable.

Campgrounds
  • Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA: Located in Holbrook, about 20 miles west of the park, this KOA campground offers RV sites, tent sites, and cabins. Amenities include full hookups, Wi-Fi, a swimming pool, and a convenience store. It’s a great base for exploring the park and the surrounding area.
  • Cholla Campground: Situated in the nearby Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, this campground offers a more rustic camping experience. It features tent and RV sites, picnic tables, and fire rings. The campground is surrounded by scenic forested areas, providing opportunities for hiking and wildlife viewing.
Hotels and Motels
  • La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Holbrook Petrified Forest: Located in Holbrook, this hotel offers comfortable rooms with modern amenities, including free breakfast, Wi-Fi, an indoor pool, and a fitness center. It’s a convenient option for visitors looking for a comfortable stay near the park.
  • Best Western Arizonian Inn: Also in Holbrook, this hotel provides well-appointed rooms, a complimentary breakfast, free Wi-Fi, and an outdoor pool. Its convenient location and friendly service make it a popular choice for park visitors.
  • Globetrotter Lodge: A charming, retro-style motel in Holbrook, the Globetrotter Lodge offers a unique and nostalgic lodging experience. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the owners are known for their warm hospitality.
Vacation Rentals

For those seeking a more private and homey experience, vacation rentals are available in the surrounding areas. Websites like Airbnb and Vrbo offer a variety of options, from cozy cabins to spacious homes, many of which provide stunning views and easy access to the park.

Nearby Attractions

When planning your stay, consider exploring other nearby attractions to enhance your trip. The Painted Desert Inn, a historic landmark within the park, offers a glimpse into the area’s cultural heritage. Additionally, the town of Holbrook has several museums, shops, and restaurants to enjoy.

Enjoying the Park

Petrified Forest National Park offers a wealth of activities and experiences for visitors to enjoy. From scenic drives and hiking trails to ranger-led programs and cultural sites, there’s something for everyone to discover.

Scenic Drives

The park’s 28-mile-long main road, known as the Petrified Forest Road, is the best way to explore the park’s diverse landscapes. The road connects the north and south entrances and features numerous scenic overlooks and points of interest. Highlights include:

  • Painted Desert Overlooks: Several overlooks along the northern section of the road provide breathtaking views of the Painted Desert’s colorful badlands. These viewpoints are particularly stunning during sunrise and sunset.
  • Blue Mesa Loop: This 3.5-mile loop drive takes you through the Blue Mesa area, where you can see vividly colored badlands and scattered petrified wood. A short hiking trail allows you to explore the area on foot.
  • Crystal Forest: This area is named for the abundant, sparkling pieces of petrified wood found here. A paved loop trail offers an easy walk among the petrified logs and provides excellent photo opportunities.
Hiking Trails

Petrified Forest National Park offers several hiking trails that cater to different interests and fitness levels. Here are some of the best trails to explore:

  • Blue Mesa Trail: This 1-mile loop trail descends into the Blue Mesa badlands, offering close-up views of the colorful hills and petrified wood. The trail is moderately strenuous due to the elevation change but is well worth the effort.
  • Crystal Forest Trail: A 0.75-mile loop trail that winds through an area with a high concentration of petrified wood. This easy trail is perfect for families and those looking to see some of the park’s most impressive petrified logs.
  • Giant Logs Trail: Located near the Rainbow Forest Museum, this 0.4-mile loop trail showcases some of the largest and most colorful petrified logs in the park. Interpretive signs along the trail provide information about the petrification process and the area’s natural history.
  • Puerco Pueblo Trail: A 0.3-mile loop trail that leads to the ruins of an ancient Ancestral Puebloan village. Along the way, you’ll see petroglyphs and the remains of the pueblo’s rooms and kivas. This trail offers a fascinating glimpse into the region’s human history.
  • Long Logs and Agate House Trails: These two interconnected trails, totaling about 2.6 miles, explore areas rich in petrified wood and archaeological sites. The Long Logs Trail features some of the longest petrified logs in the park, while the Agate House Trail leads to a reconstructed Puebloan structure made from petrified wood.
Ranger-Led Programs

The park offers a variety of ranger-led programs that provide deeper insights into its natural and cultural history. These programs are typically available seasonally and may include guided walks, talks, and demonstrations. Check the park’s website or visitor centers for current schedules and program offerings.

Visitor Centers and Museums
  • Painted Desert Visitor Center: Located near the north entrance, this visitor center provides information about the park’s history, geology, and ecology. It features exhibits, a gift shop, and a short film about the park.
  • Rainbow Forest Museum: Located near the south entrance, this museum showcases fossils, petrified wood, and cultural artifacts. The museum also serves as the starting point for the Giant Logs and Long Logs trails.
Cultural Sites

In addition to its natural beauty, Petrified Forest National Park is home to numerous cultural sites that offer a window into the region’s rich human history.

  • Newspaper Rock: This site features a large boulder covered in hundreds of ancient petroglyphs, created by the Ancestral Puebloans. The petroglyphs depict animals, human figures, and abstract designs, providing a fascinating glimpse into the beliefs and daily lives of the people who once lived here.
  • Agate House: A reconstructed Puebloan structure made entirely from petrified wood. This unique building offers insight into the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the region’s ancient inhabitants.

Conclusion

Petrified Forest National Park is a treasure trove of natural and cultural wonders, offering visitors a unique opportunity to explore one of the most geologically and historically significant regions in the United States. From its vibrant badlands and ancient petrified wood to its rich archaeological sites and diverse ecosystems, the park provides a wealth of experiences for adventurers of all interests.

Whether you’re marveling at the stunning vistas of the Painted Desert, hiking among the petrified logs, or discovering the stories of the ancient peoples who once called this land home, Petrified Forest National Park promises an unforgettable journey through time and nature. Plan your visit today and embark on an adventure that will leave you with memories to last a lifetime.


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