Petrified Forest National Park is named for its large deposits of petrified wood, and covers about 230 square miles, encompassing semi-desert shrub steppe as well as highly eroded and colorful badlands. The park's headquarters is about 26 miles east of Holbrook along Interstate 40, which parallels the BNSF Railway's Southern Transcon, the Puerco River, and historic U.S. Route 66, all crossing the park roughly east–west. The northern part of the park extends into the Painted Desert, and was declared a national monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962.
Averaging about 5,400 feet in elevation, the park has a dry windy climate with temperatures that vary from summer highs of about 100°F to winter lows well below freezing. More than 400 species of plants, dominated by grasses such as bunchgrass, blue grama, and sacaton, are found in the park. Fauna include larger animals such as pronghorns, coyotes, and bobcats, many smaller animals, such as deer mice, snakes, lizards, seven kinds of amphibians, and more than 200 species of birds, some of which are permanent residents and many of which are migratory. About half of the park is designated wilderness.
The Petrified Forest is known for its fossils, especially fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic Period, about 225 million years ago. The sediments containing the fossil logs are part of the widespread and colorful Chinle Formation, from which the Painted Desert gets its name. Beginning about 60 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau, of which the park is part, was pushed upward by tectonic forces and exposed to increased erosion. All of the park's rock layers above the Chinle, except geologically recent ones found in parts of the park, have been removed by wind and water. In addition to petrified logs, fossils found in the park have included Late Triassic ferns, cycads, ginkgoes, and many other plants as well as fauna including giant reptiles called phytosaurs, large amphibians, and early dinosaurs. Paleontologists have been unearthing and studying the park's fossils since the early 20th century.
The park's earliest human inhabitants arrived at least 8,000 years ago. By about 2,000 years ago, they were growing corn in the area and shortly thereafter building pit houses. Later inhabitants built above-ground dwellings called pueblos. Although a changing climate caused the last of the park's pueblos to be abandoned by about 1400 CE, more than 600 archeological sites, including petroglyphs, have been discovered in the park. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers visited the area, and by the mid-19th century a U.S. team had surveyed an east–west route through the area where the park is now located and noted the petrified wood. Later, roads and a railway followed similar routes and gave rise to tourism and, before the park was protected, to large-scale removal of fossils. Theft of petrified wood still remains a problem today.