One of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the world is found at Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona, about 110 miles east of Flagstaff and 210 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Scientific studies show that the petrified trees found within the park date back 211 to 218 million years. Add to that dramatic, colorful geological formations and ancient art and you’ll quickly see why Petrified Forest National Park is a must-visit; last year, just over 643,000 people trekked through the park.
In December 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created Petrified Forest National Monument, and 56 years later, in 1962, it was designated a national park. To make the most of your visit, we checked in with park staff to compile these 10 tips (in no particular order!) to make the most of your visit, whatever time of year. Petrified Forest National Park is open 364 days a year (everyday except Christmas, December 25), and hours change throughout the year; be sure to check the website when planning your visit.
1. Plan ahead: Park rangers note that summer is the busiest season and often the rainiest (monsoon season is July through September), which makes for dramatic vistas. That being said, wildflowers bloom March through October, and the fall “is a lovely time to visit the park with less visitation, milder temperatures, and normally less precipitation.” Park rangers have even developed sample itineraries to help you make the most of your time within Petrified Forest National Park.
2. Travel from east to west: If driving from the north and heading south, enter Petrified Forest National Park off of I-40 at exit 311, and drive through the park to the exit at Highway 180. The drive allows you to see the entire park without backtracking. Or, if you’re traveling from south to north, follow the signs on Highway 180 (I-40 exit 285 at Holbrook) and enter the park from the south; this route also avoids backtracking. Visitor Centers are found at both the north and south park entrances.
3. Stop along the way: As T.S. Eliot wrote, “The journey not the arrival matters,” and that can certainly be true when traveling through Petrified Forest National Park. Be sure to stop along the way and really take in the natural beauty that surrounds you. Recommended overlooks that provide panoramic views of the park’s stunning Painted Desert section include Tiponi, Tawa, Kachina, Chinde, Pintado, Nizhoni, Whipple and Lacey Points.
4. A day at the museum: Learn about the petrified wood and the Triassic-era fossils that can be found within the park at the Rainbow Forest Museum, near the park’s southern entrance. Here you’ll also find an introductory film about the park, skeletons of prehistoric animals, and access to the Giant Logs, Long Logs and Agate House trails.
5. Take a hike: Another terrific way to experience the park is by lacing up your hiking shoes and hitting the trails. A one-way spur road from the main park road leads to Blue Mesa and a one-mile loop trail in a badlands setting. Additional hiking options include the one-mile roundtrip Painted Desert Rim Trail; 0.3-mile Puerco Pueblo loop; 0.75-mile Crystal Forest loop; 0.4-mile Giant Logs loop; 1.6-mile Long Logs loop; and the 2-mile roundtrip Agate House trail.
6. Go old school – really old: Interested in southwest archeology? You’ve come to the right place. Visit Puerco Pueblo, a large archeological site that was a village about 600 years ago with as many as 200 people living there; a 0.3-mile loop trail from the Puerco Pueblo parking lot will take you there. More than 650 petroglyphs created by Puebloan people who lived, farmed and hunted along the Puerco River between 650 and 2,000 years ago, are found at Newspaper Rock; borrow a spotting scope for up-close viewing. And the Agate House (accessible via a 2-mile roundtrip trail) dates back about 700 years. Park rangers can help you make sure you see as many artifacts as possible during your visit.
7. Watch for birds: The park staff also notes that, for birders, the Painted Desert Visitor Center Plaza and the Painted Desert Rim Trail are good areas to see various species of birds, including western tanagers, hermit warblers and house finches. Elsewhere in the park, raptors, songbirds and ground birds are found. The park’s bird list can be found online – which will you spot during your visit?
8. Go wild: The Arizona landscape is home to plenty of wildlife, and within the park you may spot Gunninson’s prairie dog, meadowlark, the Arizona tiger salamander, bullsnake, golden eagle, and even coyote and bobcat. The park’s website has an extensive list of animals you may see when visiting, so keep your binoculars at the ready.
9. Stop by the inn: Park staff say that visiting the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark is a must, and a terrific way to see wonderful views of the Painted Desert. Park rangers are available seven days a week to give tours and tell the story of the inn, which once served as accommodations when it was built nearly 100 years ago of petrified wood. Today, the inn stays open as a museum and gallery space.
10. Join a ranger: Petrified Forest National Park Rangers offer a variety of programs throughout the year to showcase different areas of the park, including guided hikes, cultural demonstrations, geocaching and Junior Ranger programs. Why not go with the pros and experience the park with those who know it best: the park rangers.
For more on Petrified Forest National Park, and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service, which can be spotty.