Named for its concentration of petrified logs, Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is one of the world’s leading places to see fossils dating back to the Late Triassic. That’s the dawn of the dinosaurs for those who don’t know! Walk where the ancient lizards roamed and stand where ancient forests fell. It was designated as a National Monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and became a National Park December 9th, 1962.
The park has two, vastly different sections. The northern area has the stunningly colorful Painted Desert, with a focus on the human history of the park. The southern area consists of highly eroded landscapes, badlands, and is where most of the petrified wood can be found. It also should be noted that no lodging or campgrounds are available within the park. There is backcountry camping, however, and a permit is required.
Upon first glance, it may seem that there’s not much to do here. But peel back the layers (petrified wood pun intended), plan ahead, and you’ll find there is much more to this national park than meets the eye. Plan a full day to see everything, and a night if you want to explore the backcountry and camp.
It may be tempting to pick up a small piece of petrified wood to take home with you, but please refrain. Not only it is against the law, but it goes against the Leave No Trace principles that national park lovers hold so dear.
Visit the Rainbow Forest Museum
A museum and a visitor center, this should be your first stop, where you’ll get a wonderful introduction to Petrified Forest National Park. Exhibits, guides, maps, and park staff are on hand to answer any questions. The adjoining museum offers a well-rounded history of the area. The Rainbow Forest was set aside by President Roosevelt and was at the heart of the original Petrified Forest.
Hiking Designated Trails in Petrified Forest National Park
The northern area has the Blue Mesa Trail and is an easy 1-mile loop with a paved path. It is one of the most popular hikes in the park, and many consider it top on their list of activities. A richly varied palette of striated colors paints the rock formations in reds, blues, purples, and pinks, making this area one of the most dramatic desert landscapes in America. For a similar walk that is longer and with fewer people, consider doing the Blue Forest Trail.
The southern area has the Crystal Forest trail; an 0.8-mile loop walk and one of the best places in the park to see petrified wood. Visitors can walk right up to gigantic, petrified logs. The Giant Logs Trail is just under a half-mile and traverses some of the largest logs in the entire park. Some of the fossils date back 225 million years. Taking it all in can be a humbling experience.
The Agate House
A Pueblo house built 700 years ago, the Agate House can be reached via a 2-mile roundtrip walk from the parking lot near the Rainbow Forest Museum. These ancestral people used petrified wood in a variety of ways, including as tools and building material. The 8-room house was built and lived in somewhere between 1050 and 1300 A.D. It stands atop a small hill in Rainbow Forest, and since its excavation, hundreds more similar structures have been found in the area, dating back to the same time period.
Backpacking in Petrified Forest National Park
For the more adventurous hiker, going off-trail can be extremely rewarding. Backcountry hiking offers the unique opportunity to visit areas seldom frequented by most visitors. The visitor center has free guides, and some destinations are found off old roads where the trails are no longer maintained; still other trails may require route-finding skills. It’s important to choose the off-trail hiking area that best suits your skill level. Make sure you have a compass, a map, and a sufficient amount of water.
If it’s your first time here, the Jasper Forest, Martha’s Butte, or Blue Forest hikes are recommended. Always use caution and common sense when taking these trails. While camping overnight, enjoy colorful sunsets and amazing sunrises from the comfort of your tent out in the quiet wilderness.
Guided Tours of Petrified Forest National Park
As conditions permit, several different guided tours are offered by park officials throughout the year. Backcountry hikes typically begin in winter and run through spring. Several national parks in the U.S. offer geocaching, and Petrified Forest National Park is one of them. This popular worldwide game of hide and seek of the rock variety gives participants the chance to seek out ‘treasure’. Anyone with a GPS device can take part. Check with the park for up-to-date details.
Junior Rangers can join the Junior Paleontologist Program and explore the many ways paleontologists learn about our Earth’s history through fossils.
Old Studebaker on Old Route 66
Fact! Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park in the U.S. that encompasses a section of Old Route 66. Though the road isn’t actually there any longer, the remnants are still visible in the form of long-abandoned telephone poles and roadbeds. Visitors will intersect the old road shortly after leaving the Painted Desert Rim. Here is where one will encounter an old rusted out Studebaker that seems to have risen out of the ground. It characterizes the demise of this once-thriving highway. A truly photographic moment.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!