Do you love the desolate-but-romantic scenery of the open desert? Were you maybe really into dinosaurs at some point in life? Are you driving through Arizona and looking for a neat place to stop? Let me tell you about Petrified Forest National Park.
Petrified Forest National Park is an essential stop on your southwest road trip. Situated along I-40 in northeast Arizona, the park embraces a stretch of the colorful Painted Desert and preserves a trove of petrified trees and other fossils. Besides the scenery, you can also explore a museum with exhibits on the prehistoric forest and learn about life in the desert during human times.
All of the major sights are along the park’s 28-mile main road. With a full day, you can see them all.
The park is open daily 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is $25.00 per car, but consider buying a National Parks annual pass for $80. There are two visitor centers, one at each end of the main road. The one by the north entrance (Painted Desert Visitor Center) has a small diner; the one by the southern entrance has the Rainbow Forest Museum. Pets on a leash are welcome.
When to Visit
The climate at Petrified Forest varies a lot. For the best weather, visit in the moderately warm months of April-May or September-October. In July and August, daytime temperatures can top 100 F, and the park typically gets a few thunderstorms. (And in the winter, the low temps dip well below freezing. No thanks!)
Things to Do
Scenic drive – This is road tripping at its best! You’ll find lots of scenic overlooks and stops along the main road through the park. Check out the pueblo-style architecture of the Painted Desert Inn and catch some great views of the desert (this is your desolate-but-romantic scenery). Take your picture with an abandoned Studebaker, a relic of early Route 66. Of course, there are places to see the famous petrified wood too, like the Crystal Forest trail and near the Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitor Center (see below).
Hiking – Venture into the desert. Don’t worry, most of the trails are 1 mile or less. I recommend the Rim Trail, a paved out-and-back trail with amazing views, and the Blue Mesa Trail, a steep hike into blue-striped badlands that look like another planet. Get an early start to avoid the heat–there’s no shade on these trails.
Rainbow Forest Museum – Outside this museum/visitor center is the most impressive collection of petrified wood in the park. An interpretive trail explains how the trees of this prehistoric forest became petrified (fossilized) into solid quartz. Inside are some fun exhibits on the dinosaurs and other creatures that lived in the forest during the Late Triassic Period. Most of the large fossils are from non-dinosaur reptiles that looked like weird versions of a crocodile. There were also some early dinosaurs like Coelophysis, which looks a bit like a small velociraptor even though the two species lived millions of years apart. Sorry, this is probably too much prehistoric reptile content!
Puerco Pueblo – Less of a “must see” but still a cool stop are these ruins of a pueblo village. Informative signs help paint a picture of what life was during the 1300s. Today, the only remains are low brick foundations and a few petroglyphs.
Where to Stay
Your best bet nearby is the Route 66 town of Holbrook, AZ. There are a few chain hotels. Like I said though, Petrified Forest is a great road trip stop. You can drive on to Flagstaff (1 hr. 45 min.) or Albuquerque, NM (3 hrs. 15 min.) to continue your adventure.