The Petrified Forest National Park in the Painted Desert is totally alien landscape that, if I’d never seen it for myself, I would never have imagined existing in the United States. And yet, in northeast Arizona there are 109,000 acres of land that look like this:
I knew very little about the Petrified Forest before we stopped there while traveling from Sedona, Arizona to Santa Fe, New Mexico. But I’m so glad we took the time to see it. It’s an easy-to-get-to stop off I-40, and can be explored in a few hours!
Since we were traveling east on I-40, we took the NPS recommendation and started at the south entrance of the park. We then traveled north through the park and picked up I-40 a little further east. (Westbound? Use the north entrance.) This map shows the layout of the park, which lies both north and south of I-40.
We stuck with our tried-and-true park exploration process, and headed straight to the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center near the south entrance of the park. The visitor’s center had some great geological exhibits that explained how the petrified forests were formed, a nice little gift shop where we picked up another set of postcards for family (something we’d been trying to do at every park we visited this trip), and of course, a fascinating video that gave us a great overview of what we were about to see.
We started our exploration right out the visitor’s center’s back door on the Giant Logs Trail, which showcased some of the biggest and best samples of petrified wood in the entire park — including “Old Faithful,” which is almost ten feet wide at the base!
It was super windy that day, so after a short hike around the trail, we quickly returned to the car for a driving tour. Petrified Forest National Park is quite large, and the easiest way to see the park is by car. The scenic 28-mile road running from one end of the park to the other is an excellent way to experience the park’s highlights. The park map highlights many scenic overlooks and other points of interest that you can stop at on the way.And let me tell you, the views were spectacular.
We drove past a number of stunning vistas and overlooks, no two the same, and some simply showcasing the natural beauty of the Painted Desert. Newspaper Rock is an archeological site that is actually neither a newspaper nor a single rock. It’s a high concentration of petroglyphs — over 650 petroglyphs covering a group of rock faces within a small area. The petroglyphs were created by ancestral Puebloan people living along the Puerco River between 650 and 2,000 years ago. You can’t walk down to the rocks, but there is a catwalk and overlook for viewing, and free spotting scopes to get a closer look. Hard to get good pictures of without a great zoom lens, but really fascinating!
Eventually we ended up at one of the highlights of Petrified Forest National Park: the Agate Bridge. This natural stone bridge is a pretty cool stop just off the road. While visitor center photos show Victorians merrily walking across it, you’re no longer allowed to cross the bridge, despite the concrete reinforcement you can see in the photo below.
If you walk to the end of the bridge, you can see a cross-section of the tree, and the vibrant colors formed over the years.
We absolutely loved Petrified Forest National Park, and are excited to go back (hopefully when it’s less cold and windy!) to do some hiking, exploring, and maybe even some backpacking! PFNP really offers a variety of experiences, from a 2 hour quick tour, to days of up-close exploring and sight-seeing.
Have you been there? What was your experience? We’d love to hear in the comments!
Petrified Forest National Park “Extras”
- Backcountry camping. Petrified Forest doesn’t have any developed campgrounds, but you can get a (free!) backcountry camping permit to hike into the park. It seems like such a cool, eerie place to spend a night!
- Listen to Criminal‘s Triassic Park episode. If you’re planning on visiting the Petrified Forest, I’d highly recommend this podcast episode. It’s short — just about 20 minutes long — but it’s a super interesting behind the scenes look at the “problem” of petrified wood being stolen from the park. (If you listen to the episode you’ll learn why I put “problem” in quotes.)