National Park Guides

Petrified Forest National Park: Where Ancient Trees Turned into Stones

POSTED ON December 27, 2023 BY Ralph S.

Petrified Forest National Park

Introduction

Welcome to a world of mesmerizing petrified wood, breathtaking painted desert badlands, and endless outdoor adventures at Petrified Forest National Park.

Nestled in the heart of northeastern Arizona, this unique national monument stands as one of the most captivating destinations in the southwestern United States. In a region renowned for its natural wonders, like the Grand Canyon and Coconino National Forest in Sedona, Petrified Forest National Park holds its own distinction as a geological and historical treasure. Here, ancient forests have been transformed into stones, and the vibrant hues of the Painted Desert leave an indelible mark on the landscape.

As you explore this distinctive park, you’ll discover a place where the past comes to life and where nature’s artistry takes center stage. Whether you enter from the south or north, hike the short trails, or venture deep into the wilderness areas, you’ll find something to marvel at around every corner.

In this blog post, we’ll guide you through the park’s two entrances and lead you on a journey from the north end to the south end, unveiling the rich history, remarkable animal species, and captivating landscapes that make Petrified Forest National Park a year-round destination like no other.

So, grab your hiking boots and a sense of wonder as we invite you to visit one of the most unique parks in the world, where time has sculpted the Colorado Plateau into a masterpiece of petrified wood and Painted Desert wonders.

History

Painted desert, Petrified forest national park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park, today a revered gem within the National Park System, has a history as rich and fascinating as the petrified logs that grace its landscape. From its ancient geological formation to its present-day status as a designated wilderness and cultural showcase, this park’s journey through time is a tale worth sharing.

The story of Petrified Forest National Park begins over 200 million years ago, during the Late Triassic period when many of the first dinosaurs evolved. At that time, the region that now encompasses the park was teeming with lush forests and early dinosaurs. These ancient trees, now petrified logs, bore witness to a prehistoric world of giants.

Over the centuries, geological processes transformed this landscape. Sediments from the Chinle Formation deposited and buried the ancient trees, preserving them through a unique combination of minerals, water, and time. The petrified trees are the park’s most iconic feature, capturing the essence of an age-long past.

The journey from a geological wonder to a national park has been marked by collaboration and dedication. In 1906, the area was designated a national monument in recognition of its scientific significance and natural beauty. It wasn’t until December 9, 1962, that it achieved the status of a national park.

The National Park Service took on the responsibility of preserving this unique landscape, establishing visitor centers such as the Rainbow Forest Museum and the Painted Desert Visitor Center to educate and inspire visitors. These institutions are where visitors can delve into the park’s history, geology, and cultural significance.

Petrified Forest National Park has seen several important developments throughout its history. The Petrified Forest Historic Route, once a major transportation corridor, is now a reminder of the area’s early significance. The park has also expanded its educational offerings, including cultural demonstrations that connect visitors with the traditions and history of the ancestral Puebloan people who once inhabited the region.

The park boasts many fascinating archeological sites, including the Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock, which provide insight into the lives of early inhabitants. Petrified Forest is not just about petrified trees; it’s a portal to the past, where you can explore layers of history.

Today, the park stands as a testament to human dedication, scientific inquiry, and a reverence for the natural world. It encompasses not only the iconic petrified logs but also the expansive wilderness areas, designated to protect the park’s natural and cultural heritage.

You can embark on adventures that take them through the Crystal Forest and Giant Logs, allowing them to marvel at the petrified trees and fossils. The park is a living museum where the past coexists with the present, offering a unique opportunity for visitors to step back in time and connect with the ancient wonders that continue to captivate all who explore this remarkable landscape.

Key Facts about Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

Size: Approximately 221 square miles (594.6 km²).

Number of Visitors: About 645,000 annual visitors, making it one of the less-visited national parks in the United States.

Established on: as a national monument on December 8, 1906, and later redesignated as a national park on December 9, 1962.

Number of Hiking Trails: About 17 trails and off-beaten paths

Total Length of Hiking Trails: Approximately 45 miles (72 kilometers).

Lowest Point: Painted Desert at around 5,340 feet (1,630 meters) above sea level.

Highest Point: Pilot Rock at approximately 6,234 feet (1,900 meters) above sea level.

Other interesting facts about Petrified Forest National Park

  • Petrified Forest National Park is home to one of the largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood in the world, with logs dating back over 200 million years to the Late Triassic period.
  • The petrified logs in the park are renowned for their vibrant and varied colors, resulting from different minerals that replaced the wood, such as iron and manganese.
  • Petrified Forest is not just about ancient trees; it’s also a sanctuary for wildlife, including pronghorns, coyotes, bobcats, and a variety of bird species, making it a great spot for wildlife enthusiasts. You can learn more about the park’s natural features and ecosystem here.
  • The park’s fossil record includes not only petrified wood but also fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures, offering a glimpse into the region’s prehistoric past.
  • Petrified Forest National Park contains archeological sites like Puerco Pueblo, once inhabited by ancestral Puebloan people. It’s a window into the human history of the area.
  • The petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, one of the park’s features, showcase ancient rock carvings and writings, providing insight into the lives and stories of earlier inhabitants.
  • The park is known for the stunning Painted Desert, an area with layered, multicolored badlands where the colorful bands of sedimentary rock create a breathtaking vista.
  • Petrified Forest National Park has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park, making it an ideal location for stargazing and astrophotography.
  • The park is home to the Rainbow Forest Museum and the Painted Desert Visitor Center, where visitors can delve into the geological, historical, and cultural aspects of the area.
  • The park contains designated wilderness areas, ensuring the protection of its natural and cultural resources.
  • Despite its remarkable features, Petrified Forest National Park is one of the least-visited national parks in the United States, providing a peaceful and uncrowded experience for visitors.

Climate and Weather

Painted desert, Petrified forest national park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park, situated in the heart of northeastern Arizona on the Colorado Plateau, offers a climate that is as diverse and fascinating as its landscape, a landscape adorned with iconic petrified wood. So, understanding what to expect in each season is essential for a rewarding visit to this unique national park.

Spring (March-May)

As the park awakens from its winter slumber, spring heralds a time of rebirth and rejuvenation. Daytime temperatures in the park during spring typically range from 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F).

Summer is an ideal time to explore the outdoors, from the historic Painted Desert Inn to the Agate House Trail and Blue Mesa.

Summer (June–August)

Summer in northern Arizona can be hot, with daytime temperatures soaring to around 30°C to 37°C (86°F to 99°F). It’s also the busiest time of the year for most national parks, including Petrified Forest.

The park’s south entrance, near the Rainbow Forest Museum and Painted Desert Visitor Center, is a great place to start your summer adventure. When exploring, be sure to carry plenty of water, wear sunscreen, and stay hydrated.

Fall (September–November)

Fall brings cooler and more comfortable weather to the park, with daytime temperatures ranging from 15°C to 27°C (59°F to 81°F). It’s an excellent time for hiking the park’s trails, from the famous Crystal Forest to the Giant Logs Loop.

The fall foliage is a sight to behold, making it an ideal season for photography.

Winter (December–February)

Winter can be chilly in the park, with daytime temperatures ranging from 5°C to 13°C (41°F to 55°F). The park’s north entrance near the Painted Desert Rim is a beautiful place to explore in the winter months.

While some trails and facilities may have limited hours or be closed, the park remains open year-round, offering a unique experience with fewer visitors.

No matter the season, remember that the climate in this region can be quite unpredictable. In addition, while the park’s roads are paved, road conditions may be affected by weather, so be sure to check for any travel tips or advisories from the National Park Service before your visit.

Find the forecast information in the links below before arriving, and plan accordingly.

Best Time to Visit Petrified Forest National Park

While Petrified Forest National Park offers something unique and beautiful throughout the year, the best time to visit depends on personal preferences and interests.

For those interested in hiking and outdoor activities, spring and fall offer comfortable temperatures and stunning landscapes with vibrant foliage. Summer is ideal for exploring historic sites and taking in the breathtaking vistas of the Painted Desert, while winter can provide a quieter and more peaceful experience with fewer crowds.

However, for stargazers and astrophotographers, any season offers an ideal opportunity to witness some of the darkest skies in the country at this designated International Dark Sky Park.

Ultimately, any time is a good time to visit Petrified Forest National Park; it’s just a matter of what activities and experiences visitors are looking for.  So, plan your trip accordingly and be prepared for the weather conditions at any time of year.

Recommended Gear

Petrified forest national park, Arizona

Visiting Petrified Park is an adventure that combines the enchantment of the Painted Desert, the allure of the ancient petrified wood, and the awe of historical sites like the Painted Desert Inn and Agate House.

To make the most of your visit, it’s important to have the right gear on hand. Here are some recommended items to bring with you:

  • Comfortable Footwear: Exploring the park’s diverse landscapes often involves walking on uneven terrain. So, sturdy and comfortable hiking boots or walking shoes are a must. You can learn more about this here.
  • Weather-Appropriate Clothing: The climate can vary throughout the year, so check the weather forecast before your trip. Also, dress in layers to stay comfortable and be prepared for the region’s sometimes unpredictable weather.
  • Water and Hydration: Staying hydrated is crucial, especially during the summer months. Carry a reusable water bottle or hydration pack to fill up at park facilities.
  • Sun Protection: The desert sun can be intense. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect yourself from UV rays.
  • Camera and Binoculars: The park offers stunning vistas and abundant wildlife, so don’t forget your camera and binoculars to capture those memorable moments.
  • Map and Guide: The Petrified Forest National Park map and visitor guide, available at the visitor centers, will help you navigate the park’s attractions. You can get the area map here and learn more about how to navigate your way in the wilderness.
  • National Park Pass: If you plan to visit multiple national parks during a road trip, consider getting an America the Beautiful Pass, which covers entrance fees to all national parks.
  • Snacks and Picnic Supplies: The park has limited food service options, so packing a picnic or snacks for your visit is a good idea. Enjoy a meal with a view in designated areas. We have a guide to the 25 most delicious backpacking food ideas.
  • Cash and Cards: While there are two gift shops, credit card payments may not always be available, so it’s a good idea to have some cash on hand for souvenirs.
  • Wildlife Guides: The park is teeming with animals, so carrying wildlife guides can enhance your experience.
  • First Aid Kit: Safety should always be a priority. Carry a basic first aid kit for minor injuries or emergencies like blisters and other common hiking injuries.
  • Hiking Socks are especially important to keep your feet dry, comfortable and blister-free, we recommend to check out our bestselling Silverlight socks:
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You can also check out our multi-day and single-day backpacking checklists to know what to pack.

What to Do in Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified forest national park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is a hiker’s paradise, with over 221 square miles (594.6 km²) of designated wilderness and about 45 miles (72 kilometers) of trails waiting to be explored. Whether you’re looking for a short and easy hike or a challenging backcountry adventure, there is something for every level in this diverse landscape.

Guided tours are also available for those interested in learning more about the park’s geologic and cultural features, as well as horseback riding tours for a unique way to experience the park. For those interested in geocaching, the park offers an exciting opportunity to search for hidden treasures while exploring the park’s natural wonders.

Here’s what to do in the park.

Hiking and Backpacking

Petrified National Park is a hiker’s dream come true, with around 17 trails and off-beaten paths that lead visitors to some of the park’s most iconic attractions, including the Painted Desert and Blue Mesa.

The Blue Mesa Trail offers stunning views of colorful badlands and a unique experience hiking through eroded hills made up of bentonite clay. The Giant Logs Trail leads to the famous Rainbow Forest Museum, where visitors can see huge petrified trees and learn about the park’s geological history. For a challenging backpacking adventure, check out the 3-mile (4.8 km) round trip Blue Forest Trail (location) that takes hikers through remote areas of the park with breathtaking views and unique geologic formations along the way.

Best Hikes in Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified forest national park, Arizona

  • Painted Desert Rim Trail: The Painted Desert Rim Trail is a popular 1-mile (1.6 km) round trip hike that starts at Tawa Point and Kachina Point. This trail offers stunning views of the Painted Desert, one of the park’s most iconic attractions. The trailhead is located near the Painted Desert Visitor Center (location), operated by the National Park Service, and offers information about the park’s history, geology, and wildlife. Starting from Tawa Point, hikers can explore the rim of the Painted Desert with views of vibrant reds, purples, and grays. Along the way, you will pass by historic sites such as the Painted Desert Inn, a National Historic Landmark that was once a popular stop on Route 66. This trail also offers access to the park’s southern entrance and paved roads for those who prefer shorter hikes.
  • Puerco Pueblo: The Puerco Pueblo Trail is a short and easy 0.3 mile (0.5 km) loop located near the park road and Puerco Pueblo parking area (location), easily accessible from the south and north entrances. This trail offers visitors an opportunity to explore the remnants of an ancestral Puebloan village. Starting at the Puerco Pueblo parking area, visitors can access the trail and follow a paved path that leads to the archaeological site. Along the way, you will pass by petroglyphs left behind by the ancestral Puebloan people and learn about their daily lives through interpretive signs. The highlight of this trail is the well-preserved ruins of a village that once stood in this area. This site is also a designated national historic landmark and offers a unique glimpse into the history and culture of this ancient civilization. After exploring this historic route, you can stop by the Painted Desert Visitor Center to learn more about the ancestral Puebloan people and other cultures that have shaped this area. This trail is operated by the National Park Service and is a must-see in the southern section of Petrified Forest National Park.
  • Blue Mesa: The Blue Mesa Trail is a beautiful 1-mile (1.6 km) loop that starts at the Blue Mesa sun shelter (location). This trail offers stunning views of colorful badlands and unique geologic formations. Operated by the National Park Service, this trail can be accessed from the park road and is located in a designated wilderness area. Starting at the Blue Mesa Sun Shelter, hikers can explore the trail’s rugged terrain and take in breathtaking views of blue, gray, and purple hills made up of bentonite clay. This trail also offers a unique opportunity to hike through narrow canyons and eroded hills, giving visitors an up-close look at the park’s diverse geology. After completing the loop, you can continue exploring the park’s north side and visit nearby attractions such as the Blue Forest Trail or the Painted Desert Visitor Center.
  • Crystal Forest: The Crystal Forest Trail is a short 0.75-mile (1.2-kilometer) loop located near the Crystal Forest parking area (location). This trail offers visitors a chance to see some of the park’s most well-preserved petrified wood, along with unique historic sites and fossil logs. Starting at the Crystal Forest parking area, hikers can follow a paved path that leads to the Crystal Forest, where they can see multiple petrified logs in their natural setting. Along the way, you will also pass by remnants of the historic Route 66. The highlight of this trail is the opportunity to see fossilized tree logs that are estimated to be over 200 million years old.
  • Giant Logs: This is a short 0.4-mile (0.6-km) loop located behind the Rainbow Forest Museum. This trail offers an opportunity to see some of the largest and most well-preserved petrified wood logs in the park. Starting at the museum (location), visitors can follow a paved path that leads to the Giant Logs, which are scattered along the trail. In addition to the logs, hikers can also see other petrified wood specimens. This area is also home to a designated national historic landmark, showcasing the significance of these ancient trees. This trail is a great option for those interested in geology and history, as well as for families looking for an easy hike with stunning views. After exploring this trail, you can also check out nearby attractions such as the Long Logs Trail or the Rainbow Forest Museum.
  • Long Logs: The Long Logs Trail is a popular 1.6-mile (2.5-km) loop located near the Rainbow Forest Museum parking area (location). This trail offers visitors the chance to see a variety of petrified wood specimens. This trail is a great option for those interested in geology, as well as for families looking for an easy hike with plenty of photo opportunities. After completing the loop, visitors can also visit nearby attractions such as the Giant Logs Trail or the Rainbow Forest Museum.
  • Agate House: The Agate House Trail is a 2-mile (3.2 km) round trip hike starting at the Rainbow Forest Museum parking area (location). This unique trail offers visitors the chance to see an ancestral Puebloan ruin made entirely out of petrified wood, estimated to be over 700 years old. Along the way, hikers can take stunning views of the surrounding landscape and learn about the ancient Puebloan culture that once inhabited this area. This trail is a great option for those interested in history and archaeology, as well as for families looking for a moderate hike with a unique destination.

If you are looking for some off-trail adventures, check out the park’s Off the Beaten Path page.

Camping

Petrified Park offers primitive camping options for both tents and RVs for those looking to immerse themselves in nature. This is because the park has no RV, car, or front country camping.

Backpacking is permitted in certain areas of the park with a free backpacking wilderness permit.

These free camping permits allow visitors to explore more remote areas and truly connect with the natural beauty of the park, and they are available from the visitor centers on the day that you want to backpack.

Alternatively, nearby national park sites with campgrounds include:

Sightseeing and Scenic Drives

Petrified forest national park, Arizona

Explore the beauty of the Painted Desert and the unique formations of petrified wood along the park’s scenic drives. The Painted Desert Rim Road offers breathtaking views of colorful landscapes, while the Petrified Forest Road takes visitors through various areas of the park, including Blue Mesa and Jasper Forest. Also, don’t miss out on the opportunity to visit historic sites like the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, which offers a glimpse into the park’s past as a popular stop on Route 66.

Photography and Stargazing

Petrified Forest is a photographer’s dream, with colorful landscapes, ancient petrified wood, and abundant wildlife. The park also offers some of the darkest skies in the country, making it an ideal spot for stargazing and astrophotography.

Horseback Riding and Bicycling

For a unique way to explore the park, visitors can also go horseback riding or bicycling on designated trails. Bring your own bike or rent one from the Rainbow Forest Curio Shop.

Cultural and Educational Experiences

Immerse yourself in the rich cultural history of the region with visits to ancient petroglyphs and archaeological sites. The park also offers various educational programs, including ranger-led talks and Junior Ranger programs for kids.

Geocaching

For a modern twist on exploration, visitors can also participate in geocaching within the park. Geocaching is a real-world treasure hunt using GPS-enabled devices to find hidden containers called caches. This activity adds an element of adventure and fun to any visit to the park.

Where to Stay

Painted desert inn, Arizona, Inn image

For those seeking an immersive experience within the boundaries of Petrified Park, camping offers a unique opportunity to connect with the natural wonders that define this desert landscape. The park provides two campground options:

  1. Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area: For those seeking a more primitive and backcountry camping experience, a free permit, only available in person from either visitor centers, the Painted Desert Visitor Center, or the Rainbow Forest Museum, on the day that you want to backpack, can be obtained to camp in designated areas within the national wilderness. This allows you to truly immerse yourself in the untouched beauty of the park.
  2. Painted Desert Inn: While not a traditional accommodation, this location offers a historic and educational experience. The inn operated as a Harvey House in the early 20th century and now serves as a museum. Though you can’t spend the night, visiting during the day provides a glimpse into the past.

If camping isn’t your preference or you’re looking for more amenities, nearby towns offer a range of accommodations:

  • Chambers, Arizona (approximately 23 miles or 37 km northeast): Chambers, a smaller town near Petrified Forest, provides a more secluded and peaceful setting for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle.
  • Holbrook, Arizona (around 26 miles or 42 km west): Holbrook provides various lodging options, including hotels, motels, and bed-and-breakfast establishments. It’s a convenient choice for those looking to explore both Petrified Forest National Park and the surrounding area.
  • Winslow, Arizona (around 58 miles or 93 km west): Known for its “Standin’ on the Corner” park, Winslow offers a mix of hotels and inns. It’s a bit farther from the park but provides a comfortable base for exploring the region.
  • Gallup, New Mexico (around 70 miles or 112 km east): For those traveling from the east, Gallup offers a range of accommodations. While a bit farther away, it provides a different cultural experience and an opportunity to explore the diverse landscapes of the region.

How to Get There

Petrified forest national park, Petrified, Road

Embarking on an adventure to Petrified National Park is a journey into the mesmerizing landscapes of Northern Arizona. So, understanding how to reach the park and navigate within its boundaries ensures a seamless and enjoyable experience.

Getting There

Nearest Airport

The closest major airport to Petrified Forest National Park is Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG), situated approximately 120 miles (193 km) southwest of the park. While there are other airports in the region, Flagstaff Pulliam is a convenient choice for those traveling to the southern part of the park.

Transportation from Flagstaff Pulliam Airport

Once you arrive at Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, you will find several car rental agencies operating at the airport. These rental companies provide a convenient option for travelers. From Flagstaff, follow Interstate 40 eastward Chambers and take the exit for either the north or south entrance of Petrified Forest National Park, depending on your chosen route.

Getting Around

  • Two Entrances: Petrified Forest offers two entrances—the north entrance and the south entrance. The north entrance is near the Painted Desert Visitor Center, while the south entrance leads to the Rainbow Forest Museum. Both entrances provide access to the unique features of the park, allowing visitors to explore the northern and southern sections seamlessly.
  • Park Roads: The park is traversed by a scenic road, providing access to key attractions like the Painted Desert Rim, Blue Mesa, and Agate House. Paved roads make it easy to navigate between the various points of interest. Follow the park road to experience the wonders of both the north and south sides.
  • National Park Service Assistance: The National Park Service operates visitor centers at both entrances—Painted Desert Visitor Center and Rainbow Forest Museum. Here, you can obtain maps, information, and guidance from park rangers to enhance your exploration of the park.
  • Limited Food Service: While the park offers limited food service, it’s advisable to bring your own snacks and picnic supplies. Ensure you have enough water, especially if you plan on embarking on hikes or spending an extended amount of time exploring.

Conclusion

Petrified Forest National Park offers a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors seeking to connect with nature and explore the unique landscapes of Northern Arizona.

From backpacking and geocaching to camping and nearby accommodations, there are options for every type of traveler. With convenient access from major airports and well-maintained roads within the park, planning a trip to this national park is both easy and exciting.

You can have a look at other exciting parks in our National Parks Guide archive page


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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