Red-colored badlands, blue-banded rock formations, a historic auto route, Native American sites and fossilized trees make up the remarkably varied landscape of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
Named for its huge density of petrified logs, this is one of the world’s best places to see fossils from the Late Triassic, which was basically the dawn of the dinosaurs. That’s how old this place is. Petrified Forest National Park allows you to walk where dinosaurs roamed and to stand where ancient forests fell.
You’ll explore an ancient river system that would’ve put every other river in the world today to shame. These arid landscapes may seem desolate and empty, but a closer look reveals an age-old geological and natural experiment that’s still ongoing to this day.
Petrified Forest National Park is a place that’ll surprise you, fascinate you, educate you and inspire you. Simply put, it’ll put you in your place.
It’ll make you realize how insignificant you—and humans as a species—really are. There were many worlds before humans came along and there will be worlds we can’t even imagine after we’re gone. This is one of the best national parks in America for some historical and natural perspective.
Best of Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park will keep you occupied for at least a whole day. The park’s only road cuts across this arid landscape from north to south. When driving it, you’ll come across the following major highlights.
The Painted Desert
There are no designated campgrounds or other accommodations in Petrified Forest National Park, but you needn’t worry. You can still pitch a tent. In fact, camping in the Painted Desert is the best wild camping I’ve ever done and I highly recommend it.
A huge area of red-and-purple-colored badlands in northern Arizona, the Painted Desert stretches from just east of Grand Canyon National Park eastward into Petrified Forest National Park. Much of the desert lies in the Navajo Nation. The Painted Desert makes up the northern part of Petrified Forest National Park, which is the most easily accessible area in this entire desert.
From Kachina Point near the Painted Desert Inn, a National Historic Landmark and now housing a small museum, you can descend into the badlands. The trail only runs for about a mile, until you’re in officially designated wilderness. From there onward, there are no trails and you’re free to wander around as you please.
When you’re going backpacking and camping in the Painted Desert, make sure that you have a map, compass and a sufficient amount of water.
Old Studebaker on Old Route 66
Fun fact: Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park in America that’s home to a section of Old Route 66.
Although there’s no actual road anymore, its outline is still visible in the form of old telephone poles and an old roadbed. When driving the park’s main road from north to south, you’ll intersect Old Route 66 shortly after leaving the Painted Desert rim.
The main attraction here is the Old Studebaker, a rusty shell of a car that characterizes the demise of this once-thriving highway. It’s quite a photogenic spot and it’s just cool to stand in a national park and on the remains of one of the world’s most iconic roads.
Like so many other places on the Colorado Plateau, this area, too, has a rich Native American history. The best example of this is Puerco Pueblo, the ruins of ancestral Puebloan homes. Situated near the Puerco River, this site used to comprise more than 100 individual rooms, possibly housing more than 200 people in its heyday.
That heyday was between 1250 and 1380, after which climate change forced the Puebloans to leave these homes and move to more livable regions. Nowadays, only these sandstone bricks, the outline of the structures, earthenware, stone tools and petroglyphs remain.
Native American Petroglyphs
Near Puerco Pueblo, a 0.3-mile (500-meter) hiking trail leads to a couple of overlooks where you can see petroglyphs. These images carved into rocks are found all over the American Southwest and mark everything from astrological events such as solstices and equinoxes to everyday activities, migratory routes and clan or family symbols.
Just south of Puerco Pueblo, Newspaper Rock features over 650 petroglyphs, some of which more than 2,000 years old. The huge concentration of these prehistoric rock carvings makes this an extraordinarily significant historic site.
After the red landscapes of the Painted Desert, the Teepees announce your arrival in a quite different area of the park. These striking rock formations, shaped like teepees or haystacks, are made up of bands of red, grey, blue, purple and white rock. The park’s main road runs right through them, a rather unique sight that’s worth stopping for.
One of the greatest things to do in Petrified Forest National Park—my second favorite, after camping in the Painted Desert—is hiking in the Blue Mesa.
A richly varied palette of colors makes this one of the most striking desert landscapes anywhere in America. No exaggeration. You can explore the Blue Mesa by car on a 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometer) loop drive off the main road, stopping at several scenic viewpoints on the way. The better option, however, is to go for a hike.
A one-mile (1.6-kilometer) hiking trail dives down toward the mesa’s floor, looping around, through and underneath these spectacular rock formations. If you’re driving the park’s main road from north to south, this is also most likely where you’ll spot your first petrified wood.
Crystal Forest, Long Logs and Giant Logs Trails
The southern part of the park is where you’ll find most of the petrified wood, the park’s namesake feature. There are a few different, short hiking trails through fields of petrified logs. I suggest you do them all. My personal favorite was the Crystal Forest Trail, an easy 0.75-mile (1.2-kilometer) loop.
Petrified wood is literally a tree that’s been turned into stone. These things are ancient, dating back an incredible 225 million years—that’s basically when the dinosaurs first appeared. Huge numbers of trees were carried to floodplains by mighty rivers, where volcanic ash buried them before they had the chance to decompose. Silica-rich water found its way into the wood, over time crystallizing into all kinds of colorful minerals such as iron, manganese and quartz.
This results in the kaleidoscope of bright colors that’s now visible in the hundreds of broken petrified logs that line these hiking trails. It’s one of the most exceptional natural attractions you’ll ever see.
How Much Time Do You Need?
This great national park deserves at least one full day and one night of your time. It’s not the biggest park and there’s only one road, running from north to south through the park. This allows you to see every single attraction, in depth and at your own pace.
I recommend backpacking into the Painted Desert wilderness and spending a night out there. It’s magical—and surprisingly easy as well.
Petrified Forest National Park Map
Location: Eastern Arizona, United States
Nearest Towns: Holbrook, Chambers, Winslow
Area: 229.6 square miles (594.6 square kilometers)
Features: Petrified wood, badlands, desert flats, fossils, historic sites
Main Attractions: Painted Desert and Painted Desert Inn, Puerco Pueblo, Old Route 66, Blue Mesa, petrified wood
Main Activities: Desert camping, cycling, hiking, cultural exploration
Suggested Stay: 1 day / 1 night
More Information: National Park Service
Nearby National Parks
Other Desert Parks
Petrified Forest National Park Photos
Visit my national parks photography portfolio for a bunch of awesome photos of Petrified Forest National Park.