It isn’t the colorful landscapes, the winding trails, the fresh air, or even the wide-open spaces that make the Petrified Forest so interesting—though it offers all of those things. Petrified Forest is home to the world’s largest collection of petrified wood. Its lifecycle began 225 million years ago when an ancient forest was buried beneath a river system where it laid dormant for millennia.
Fast forward to 60 million years ago—that is when the Colorado Plateau began uplifting to expose the trees to oxygen, fracturing them into large pieces that lay upon Earth today for us all to go and see. It’s amazing to look at. The exterior appears just like any wooden tree bark does but upon touch, it is the smoothest, hardest material you’ll ever feel. Flip it over and you’ll see a vibrantly colored, ornately designed interior made of quartz that glints with brilliance in every shift of light.
Perhaps most remarkable is that anyone can pick up a piece and examine the effects of wood exposed to the forces of nature spanning millennia. Wrap your mind around that for a moment—you can hold in your hand a piece of Earth that is 225 million years old. That alone is incredible.
But the wonder doesn’t stop there. The park’s north side is home to colorful badlands at the Painted Desert and Blue Mesa where I was the most enchanted. Here the blue, purple, and ivory sculpted hills are topped with pieces of quartz. There are both petroglyphs and ancient ruins in several areas of the park that tell the story of primitive cultures and peoples.
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The Park’s fallen tree fossils mostly date from the Late Triassic Epoch—a massive 225 million years ago. That means that the T-Rex that lived only 65 million years ago was much closer to our time than these fossils. Other popular activities include hiking and horse riding in this vibrant and colorful wilderness.
The sediments of the Late Triassic Epoch that contain all of these trees are part of the Chinle Formation. The Late Triassic was when dinosaur life was at its most spectacular and so this is one of the sites that dinosaur lovers should visit. This formation is stunningly colorful and is where the Painted Desert gets its name. There are some fossilized animals in this park—notably the large flying reptiles and phytosaurs.
Fun Fact: Pterodactyls are not dinosaurs
Over 200 million years ago, this part of what is now Arizona was a lush landscape filled with flourishing trees and other kinds of vegetation. But this was destroyed in a large volcanic explosion and the remains of this forest were preserved and embedded in the volcanic ash and water.
And there is wind—amazing wind that continues to erode Earth, exposing more wood, and shaping what is already there. Like all of the parks, once I dug in and learned more about the reason the park was protected in the first place, I wanted to stay much, much longer.
If history and science aren’t your things, there is another unique draw here—this is where you can get the best of American kitsch while stepping foot onto the Mother Road: America’s Historic Route 66. Route 66 in its original form is no longer in existence but at Petrified Forest, you can visit the only section of the famed road existing inside a national park.
Nearby in the town of Holbrook lives the classic Wigwam Motel—on the National Register of Historic Places—providing a glimpse into the mid-20th century golden age of travel.
Route 66 is a classic destination that all should visit at least once in their lives. But the Mother Road won’t transport your mind’s eye to a place and time where ancient birds flew before dinosaurs roamed the planet hundreds of millions of years ago; for that experience, you’ll need to visit Petrified Forest, National Park. This is one of those places where time and age are your companions. One breath in and one lookout and you can truly sense and feel the tale of prehistoric life on Earth.
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After many millions of years of being buried, the sediment has been eroding and exposing the forest entombed within it. Today the petrified wood has been turned into quartz.
The park boasts more than just the Petrified Forest. There are 13,000 years of human history to discover at the park. One of the main human traditions includes a nearly 800-year-old 100 room dwelling. There are around 600 archeological sites in the national park including various petroglyphs. These lands had been inhabited by pueblos but it was abandoned by around 1400.
Hiking is one of the best ways to explore the Petrified Forest National Park and there are several designated hiking trails crisscrossing the park. These trails range from less than half a mile to about three miles.
Length: 1.2 miles one way
Trailheads: Tawa Point and Painted Desert Visitor Center
Enjoy the tranquility of the grassland as the trail leads from scenic Tawa Point to the Painted Desert Visitor Center. In Hopi ideology, Tawa refers to the Sun Spirit, the Creator of the World. The Hopi are one of several current Native American groups who are connected to the rich and varied history of the Petrified Forest.
Painted Desert Rim Trail
Length: 1 mile round trip
Trailheads: Tawa Point and Kachina Point
This unpaved trail winds through the rim woodland, a place for chance encounters with many species of plants and animals and spectacular views of the Painted Desert.
Puerco Pueblo Trail
Length: 0.3 miles loop
Trailhead: Puerco Pueblo parking area
A paved walk amidst the remains of a hundred-room pueblo occupied by the ancestral Puebloan people over 600 years ago. Petroglyphs can be viewed along the south end of the trail. Please do not climb on the boulders or walls and do not touch the petroglyphs.
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Blue Mesa Trail
Length: 1 mile loop
Trailhead: Blue Mesa sun shelter
Descending from the mesa, this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among badland hills of the bluish bentonite clay as well as petrified wood. Numerous plant and animal fossils have been found by paleontologists in the sedimentary layers of Blue Mesa.
Length: 0.75 mile loop
Trailhead: Crystal Forest parking area
Named for the presence of beautiful crystals that can be found in the petrified logs, this trail offers one of the best opportunities to experience the petrified wood deposits.
Length: 0.4 mile loop
Location: Behind Rainbow Forest Museum
Giant Logs features some of the largest and most colorful logs in the park. “Old Faithful” at the top of the trail is almost ten feet wide at the base. A trail guide is available at Rainbow Forest Museum.
No accommodation is available within the park. Boondocking, primitive camping, and pulling off to spend the night in a parking area are not permitted.
The gateway to the park is the town of Holbrook. It is around 20 miles to the west of the park and offers a full range of accommodation options. We used OK RV Park as our home base while exploring Petrified National Park. Easily accessible from I-40, the 150 pull-through gravel sites offer water and sewer connections and the choice of 30 or 50 amp electric service.
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Size: 93,533 acres with more than half as dedicated Wilderness area
Date established: December 9, 1962 (established as a National Monument by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906)
Location: Northeast Arizona (the nearest town is Holbrook)
Park elevation: Averages 5,400 feet
Weather: Petrified Forest National Park is a semi-arid grassland. Temperatures range from above 100 degrees to well below freezing. About 10 inches of moisture comes during infrequent snow in the winter and often violent summer thunderstorms. Check out the forecast before you arrive and plan accordingly.
Operating hours: Every day year-round (closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Park hours are 8 am to 6 pm. You must enter the park before 5 pm. Remember that this is Mountain Standard year-round as Arizona does not observe Daylight Saving Time.
Park entrance fee: $25 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days
Recreational visits (2021): 590,334
Roads: Historic Route 66 and I-40 run through the park
Wild animals in the park: Bobcats, pronghorns, coyotes, and over 200 species of birds
How the park got its name: Petrified Forest was named after a wilderness of 225 million-year-old trees that have, over time, turned into solid quartz (and not from being petrified with fear)
Iconic site in the park: The colorful Painted Desert that stretches from the Grand Canyon is the best-known landmark at Petrified Forest and it greets you right as you cross through the northern boundary of the park. It was given its name by Spanish explorers who thought the clay and mudstone badlands looked like a sunset painted onto the landscape. This landmark is a protected Wilderness area so you won’t be exploring its interior by car (although there are viewpoints that you can pull up to). The best way to explore it is to head out on foot on a 1-mile unpaved loop trail where you can see the picturesque rim from a different vantage point.
A must-see cultural stop nearby is at the 100-year-old Painted Desert Inn where you can view in real life restored mural art created by famed Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.
Did you know?
Petrified Forest National Park has a world class fossil record with artifacts dating to the Triassic Period, 200 million years ago, before the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs roamed our home planet. The Triassic era is known as the “Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”
Petrified Forest is home to fossils of massive crocodile-like creatures known as Phytosaurs as well as remnants from 13,000 years of human history including the remains of villages, tools, and grinding stones.
Archeological relics prove that humans have lived in the area for more than 10,000 years.
Some of the trees in the park measure up to 200 feet—about the length of the wingspan of a 747 jet.
Petrified Forest is the only national park where a segment of Route 66 exists.
On the wall of the historic Painted Desert Inn you can visually wander along the path of the Native American people in the area as depicted in a painting by famed Hopi artist, Fred Kapotie.
Quite a forest of petrified trees was discovered today…they are converted into beautiful specimens of variegated jasper. One trunk was measured ten feet in diameter, and more than one hundred feet in length…
—Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, 1853