Established in 1962, Petrified Forest NP protects some of the most incredible examples of petrified wood in the world. These petrified pieces have developed over centuries when the forest that once lived here fell and was preserved by the sediments in the land.
For those who have the time, exploring this park is a highlight of a trip to Arizona. There’s a lot to discover, and we explore the Best Things to Do in Petrified Forest National Park to help plan your trip.
Painted Desert Visitor Center and Lab
If you are entering from the north side of the park, Painted Desert Visitor Center is the first location you’ll come across.
Beyond being a visitor center, it is still worth a stop and visit. I highly recommend checking in with the rangers and volunteers to know the status of location, closing times, and ranger programs that are occurring throughout the park.
There’s also bathrooms, café, bookstore, and gift shop at the location as well.
Be sure to also check out the lab area next to the information center. You’ll be able to look in and see what researchers are doing, which often includes examining and cleaning fossils found in the park.
Petrified Forest Scenic Drive
The main thoroughfare of Petrified Forest travels from the northern Painted Desert Visitor Center past the Rainbow Forest Museum. The nearly 30 mile road takes visitors from Route 40 up and around down to US-180.
Along the way you’ll get the opportunity to stop at various different attractions (many of those below) as well as quite a few pull-offs and overlooks along the way. If you are short of time, even just driving along the route is a nice way to see the change in the desert landscape. You can even catch quite a lot of petrified wood pieces along the road as well.
There are several Desert Overlooks in the top half of the park between the visitor center and the museum. If you just visited these, you may not even think the park had any petrified wood.
While you won’t see the namesake forests of the park, you’ll get to see some beautiful geology and vistas to overlook the area of Arizona. There are several overlooks and they don’t change too significantly between them. But in some you can get looks at the rocks and mounds better than others.
So I won’t say stop at all of them, but you should at least stop quick and admire one or more.
Painted Desert Inn
Address: Painted Desert Inn Location
Formerly an actual hotel/inn, the Painted Desert Inn is now these days a museum and seasonable Ice Cream shop.
The original building was made of petrified wood and other local stone. However, the current iteration of the inn is now made of locally constructed adobe. In it’s heyday it was a inn, restaurant, and popular stop for traveler’s along Route 66. Sadly much of that is gone, and it does not provide overnight accommodations (there are none in the park other than backcountry camping).
It is worth a stop, albeit a quick one for checking out the museum and historical Hopi artwork and murals. And of course the ice cream shoppe is pretty cool as well.
Address: Route 66 Display
One thing I had not known is that the famous historical Route 66 crossed through the current park. The route which traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles, was the first paved road of its kind in the country that made so many places accessible. These days, the original route does not exist in it’s historical form. But you can still visit many of the original places along the former route.
The display here is just something small that includes a model car, some signage, and the designation of where the route actually crossed through on it’s original path through the park.
Address: Trailhead for Puerco Pueblo
Definitely one of the highlight stops along the main drag in Petrified Forest. The Puerco Pueblo is the only easily accessible pueblo village in the park. It’s actually pretty well maintained with several different buildings that are visible in the ruins of the pueblo.
There are even some petroglyphs that are viewable near the trail as well. Also worth checking out during your time here. The entire paved trail is about 1/3 of a mile and it’s a pretty quick and easy trail to walk.
Address: Newspaper Rock Overlook
Newspaper rock protects an area of petroglyphs in the park. The viewpoint is actually pretty far from many of the best petroglyphs so you can try to see them through the provided telescopes.
However, I found them to be more difficult to find than by my eyes (that may be cause of my glasses). There’s actually a large number of petroglyphs along the rocks that you can witness.
I imagined this was going to be similar to the Newspaper rock in other parks such as Canyonlands, with the large number of petroglyphs on a large rock “parchment”. However, I was a bit disappointed in comparison. Worth a quick stop if you’ve not seen petroglyphs.
Address: Overlook for the Teepee Formations
These conical badland formations are named teepees due to their similarity to the Native American structure of the same name.
They are quite a beautiful site rising out from the desert landscape that surround them. The bands are formed by the various minerals that make up the construction of the formations. They are in many ways related to the ones seen below at the blue mesa area.
The link to overlook above is a pull out south of the formations that is a great spot to pull off and get great views of the formations. There’s no defined trail to the formations, so just admire them from afar like everyone else.
Blue Mesa Trail
Address: Blue Mesa Trailhead
The beautiful blue mesa is a small loop off-shoot of the main drag through Petrified Forest. The first half of the road is overlooks of the blue mesas. However, closer to the end of the loop there is an opportunity to park and actually hike a paved trail down along the blue mesas.
This one mile trail is actually pretty well maintained and paved. There is some elevation drop, but given that its paved its not really a difficult trail. I think you get better views however of the Mesas from the overlooks, but worth a quick peak on the trail as well.
Address: Agate Bridge Trailhead
One of the most famous and popular attractions in Petrified forest is the Agate Bridge. This bridge was formed when a tree that had been petrified was exposed as the land below had been eroded by moving water.
Over the years however, the elements and visitation had caused the bridge to continue to weaken, and thus the concrete slab that is seen below was constructed by the railroad (of whom this was a popular attraction) to reinforce the bridge. So it’s not as “bridge-like” as it used to be, but its still pretty cool and worth a quick look.
Address: Jasper Forest Trailhead
This was my first main trail that I came across for petrified tree pieces in the park. Jasper Forest Trail is one of the longer trails you can visit and when I was there, no one else was hiking the same trail. It felt pretty cool to have the entire place to myself.
You can hike for several miles if you choose, however, if you are short on time, you can easily do a quick out and back and see great examples of petrified wood.
There’s a longer multi mile loop and you can also walk the old jasper forest road. I think doing the entire 3-4 mile loop is unnecessary especially when you can see great examples close to the parking as well as at other stops as well.
Crystal Forest Trail
Address: Crystal Forest Trailhead
One of the most popular trails in the park, Crystal Forest Trail is one of the top places to see great examples of petrified forest pieces. The trail is named for the crystals that ones can find within the petrified forest logs, however I don’t know if its something higher concentrated here than elsewhere.
What is true, is that it’s very popular, and it was the most visited of the hikes I did within the park. The trail takes you in a few different loops and while you can do all of them, you can get some great views and even if you do something shorter. The main larger loop is about a mile in length.
Rainbow Forest Museum
Part Museum, part visitor center, the Rainbow Forest Museum does a good job of doing both. There’s also a small bookstore/shop inside as well as the opportunity to get your NPS Passport Stamp if you haven’t already done so.
I really liked all the fossils that were on display in the museum and information about all the different fossils. Also I was surprised that some I assumed were dinosaurs, were not. I didn’t realize all the characteristics between Dinos and lizards. I knew the similarity of dinosaurs with birds, but I didn’t realize how much so that was in their general categorization.
The logs definitely felt bigger than many of the other ones. I don’t know if that’s really true or not, or maybe I was just suckered in by the name “Giant Logs”. It’s a good, short hike though, and one of the easiest to access if you are in this part of the park.
The walk takes you around a mound with a lot of logs strewn about in places. There are definitely some very colorful log varieties in this walk as well as several that are definitely larger than ones I saw elsewhere.
The hike is easily accessible from the back entrance of the Rainbow Forest Museum. The trail is paved and there’s a few short cuts if you want to cut the loop short as well.
Long Logs & Agate House
Address: Long Logs Trailhead
These two should be done together, or you can do one or the other. Together both trails make up a 2.6 mile loop that shows you some great logs as well as the Agate House Pueblo.
Long logs has some of the longest petrified logs in the park. Generally speaking most of the logs break apart and separate from one another. However, in the long logs are either together or at least set adjacent to one another to show them as long. The trail itself is pretty easy and flat.
The Agate house is a unique pueblo that is constructed from petrified forest “logs”. This is something you generally don’t see anywhere else. Unfortunately, it’s a reconstruction, so it’s hard to know how it look exactly in the past. It’s also falling apart a bit more, so there’s work to both stabilize and rebuild the reconstructed structure. Regardless, it’s still cool to see and photograph this “log home”.
Access to the trail is from across the bridge from the Rainbow Curios store. You can park at the store/museum parking lot and then walk across the bridge to the trailhead.
Where to Stay
Petrified Forest National Park is a great national park to visit on the way to other destinations. You can spend a few hours or even a full day exploring the park. If you decide to stay in the area, some options are below.
There is no designated campgrounds within the park boundaries. Actually much of the park is designated for day-use only, and the roads and gates will close in the evening. There is backcountry wilderness camping in two designated wilderness areas (in the north and south). The north being the much larger unit.
To camp, you’ll need to obtain a free backcountry permit. Permits can be obtained day-of from the Painted Desert Visitor Center or Rainbow Forest Museum. You’ll need to camp at least a half mile from your vehicle.
There are a definitely interesting places to explore in the backcountry as well such as Devil’s Playground (which requires a permit for day or night).
Hotels in the area are sparse. However, the best options are in nearby Holbrook Arizona. Some suggestions on places to stay below.
- Baymont Inn: One of the nicer hotels in town. Clean rooms, free breakfast, and decently located.
- La Quinta: I’m a fan of the La Quinta brand. Rooms are spacious, clean, new, overall a great option.
- Howard Johnson: Comfortable clean rooms next to the airport. Free Grab & Go Breakfast as well.
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