A broken petrified log, you can see the blue, red and white inside the log
National Parks,  USA

Petrified Forest National Park: Fossils, Petroglyphs and the Painted Desert

Petrified Forest National Park is a beautiful park we fell in love with in 2008. The park was one of many stops on a road trip through Southwestern USA. One other stop was Natural Bridges National Monument. If you’re looking for desert, beautiful landscapes, petroglyphs, fossils and Route 66, it’s all to be found in Petrified Forest National Park.

Where is Petrified Forest National Park?

Petrified Forest National Park is located in Arizona, USA. To be precise it’s in Northeastern Arizona, close to the border with New Mexico. The closest town is Holbrook in Arizona. Petrified Forest National Park Arizona is located in Navajo and Apache counties.

The sign of Petrified Forest National Park
The sign of Petrified Forest National Park

Some facts about Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park covers 88.500 hectares, which is about 595 km², and is under management of the NPS. The park has elevations of 5800 feet within its boundaries. In 1906 Petrified Forest was declared a National Monument. On December 9th 1962 the National Monument was turned into a National Park. In 2004 over 40.000 acres got added to the park. Next to a National Park, the area is also designated a wilderness, the first together with Craters of the Moon National Monument within the NPS, since 1970. The park receives about 645.000 visitors a year. They come to see the world renowned petrified logs, the badlands, ancient petroglyphs, the vast vistas, buttes, wildflowers, mesas and wildlife.

View on the badlands, looking into a valley with grey and brown badlands
View on the badlands

The park receives most of its visitors in the Summer months, foremost in July. Petrified Forest National Park protects only a fraction of Petrified Forest in Arizona, less than 20%. The Petrified Forest of Arizona is considered one of the largest in the world.

Precautions

When out exploring stay on the designated trails, as not to harm the soil or damage anything else. You’re not allowed to climb on the badlands, rock art or pueblo dwellings. Next to this it’s prohibited to remove or dig up anything. Others after you want to enjoy the treasures of the park as well.

When you go out to explore, especially when hiking, take plenty of water with you.

Cosette on the trail, behind her gray badlands. The rest is grasses and sand around her. she stand on a paved road.
Cosette on the trail

Temperatures in the park range from above 38°C (100°F) to below freezing temperatures. In the Summer violent thunder-storms occur and in the winter there can be snow.

Some History

In the later part of the Triassic Period, some 225 million years ago, enormous forests with sequoia’s up to 200 feet high covered the low lying swamp areas. They think that one large or several volcano eruptions destroyed the area. The sequoia’s and other trees were covered in water, volcanic ash and mud. This was the breeding ground for the petrified logs and other fossils. Silica, a mineral present in volcanic ash, replaced most of the organic wood, causing crystallization in various stages in the wood. Other minerals make the rainbow of colors. Because of the silica the trees were preserved and turned into quartz. Later on when the present desert landscape was formed, and the Southwest became higher, through wind- and water erosion the petrified logs came up to the surface again. The trees are 211 to 218 million years old.

Petrified logs jam, several petrified logs scattered around.
Petrified logs jam

There’s also a lot of human history in the park. Humans are present in the area for some 13.000 years already. About 2000 years ago humans were growing corn in the area. Then they started building pit houses and later on above-ground dwellings, which are called pueblos. Due to climate change the pueblos were abandoned around 1400 AD.

Agate House, from the other side. closer by.
Agate House

Hiking

There are backcountry hiking and walking trails available in the park. We visited the park for 5,5 hours and had time to undertake all the walking trails. This way you get to experience every different aspect of the park. The Southern part of the park contains the highest concentrations of petrified wood, while the Northern part shows the human story and the vistas on the Painted Desert.

There are 7 walking trails and 9 backcountry trails. The walking trails are mostly paved and relatively easy to follow. The backcountry trails are not paved and you have to get the guiding leaflet at the visitor center.

Walking trails

  1. Agate House: The longest of the walking trails. It’s a 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) round trip. On this trail you can see a small pueblo. The pueblo was entered through the ceiling  and was an eight room house. The start of the trail is at the Rainbow Forest Museum parking area. I love seeing old dwellings and to imagine how people lived there.
  2. Long Logs: This trail can be combined with the Agate House trail, into a round trip. The start of this trail is also at the Rainbow Forest Museum parking area. It’s a 2.5 kilometer (1.6 miles) loop which has one of the largest log jams in the park. Next to petrified logs, you can see gray badlands on this trail.
  3. Painted Desert Rim Trail: This is the hike for views to the Painted Desert. It’s truly mesmerizing to see. The colors of the Painted Desert are so beautiful. I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s a 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) round trip on an unpaved path. It winds through the rim woodland. There are 2 starting points: Tawa Point and Kachina Point.
  4. Crystal Forest: The trail starts at the Crystal Forest parking area. You can see the petrified wood very well on this trail. Crystal Forest refers to the crystals in the petrified wood. It’s a 1.2 kilometers (0.75 mile) loop.
  5. Giant Logs: If you want to see some of the largest and most colorful petrified logs this is the trail for you. It’s a 0.6 kilometers (0.4 mile) loop and at the start you can see the Old Faithful log, which is almost 10 feet wide. The trail is right behind the Rainbow Forest Museum and can easily be combined with a visit to the museum.
  6. Puerco Pueblo: Your chance to see a large pueblo, a hundred room pueblo. This isn’t the only thing to admire on the trail, petroglyphs can also be viewed along the trail. I always find it so fascinating to see old petroglyphs or drawings, like at Lascaux in the Dordogne. The trail is a 0.5 kilometers (0.3 mile) loop, which starts at the Puerco Pueblo parking area.
  7. Blue Mesa: It’s fascinating to walk among the badland hills. To imagine how many more fossils are still in the Blue Mesa. The path is alternately paved and gravel road, it starts at the Blue Mesa sun shelter and has a (deep) ascend at the beginning of the hike. It’s a 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) loop.
Old Faithful, a petrified log 10 feet wide on the Giant Logs Trail
Old Faithful
A petrified log up close, you see the red, blue, grey and white colors
A petrified log up close
Agate House, almost completely build from petrified wood, standing on a small hill.
Agate House
The Painted Desert
The Painted Desert
A petrified log sticking out at Blue Mesa, one part has falling down, the other part is still in the mesa.
A petrified log sticking out at Blue Mesa
Puerco Pueblo, the foundation is still visible
Puerco Pueblo

Backcountry hikes

The 9 backcountry hikes vary from 3.4 kilometers (2.1 miles) to 13.7 kilometers (8.5 miles). There are 2 hikes through the “First Forest”. This was the first stop for tourists. They came by wagon to admire the petrified wood in the 1890s and early 1900s. Jasper Forest Hike and First Forest Point are the hikes to be taken for this.

Up close with a petrified log, you can clearly see the different layers of minerals.
Up close with a petrified log

Other hikes go through grassland and offer broad views. For these views you have to hike Billings Gap and Dead Wash Overlook hike.

Petrified logs scattered everywhere in the grassland.
Petrified logs scattered everywhere

Onyx Bridge Hike, Red Basin Clam Beds Hike and Wilderness Loop go through fossil-rich areas. There’s also a hike that only has 3 permits per week available, which are given out on a first-come-first-served basis, and that is Devil’s Playground. There’s one hike on which you can see it all and that is The Blue Forest Trail.

Blue Mesa, you can clearly and beautifully see the different layers of colors in the badlands.
Blue Mesa

Viewpoints

There’s a main road that stretches through the park, its 45 kilometers (28 miles) long with beautiful viewpoints. Driving the main park road will take an hour, but with all the hikes and stops it will take longer. This way you can already see a lot of the park. There’s an exhibit on Route 66, which crosses the park. That point is marked with an old, rusty car. Newspaper Rock with over 650 petroglyphs is another worth while stop. We stopped at every viewpoint.

An old car at Route 66
An old car at Route 66
Us in front of the Painted Desert
Us in front of the Painted Desert
Petroglyphs, rock art at the bottom of a rock. There's a lot of different drawings.
Petroglyphs

Flora and Fauna

Petrified Forest National Park is a semi-arid grassland. A desert to most people. It harbors more than 400 species of plants, mostly grasses. There’s also a large variety of animals in the park. Birds, lizards, rabbits, amphibians, insects, spiders, reptiles and several mammals can be found. Most of the animals are not easily seen and are nocturnal. We saw a rabbit and several lizards. Beautiful to see in the wild. Petrified Forest National Park isn’t the only park in which we spotted wildlife, we spotted brown bears in Shenandoah National Park.

A rabbit between the petrified logs
A rabbit between the petrified logs
A lizard between the grass, a grey one on the sand.
A lizard
A colorful lizard on a petrified log, with grasses behind it.
A colorful lizard on a petrified log
A yellow wildflower, in between grasses.
A yellow wildflower

Historical Buildings

There are several historical buildings in the park. One of them is the Rainbow Forest Museum in the Rainbow Forest Complex. A good way to learn more about the history and geology of the Petrified Forest Arizona. We loved reading how the Petrified Forest came to be. It’s located near the South entrance.

Near the Northern entrance are 2 historical buildings. One is the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark. It’s at Kachina Point. In earlier days travelers along the historic Route 66 would stop here for food and water. The Second historical building is the Painted Desert Visitor Center which is in the historic Painted Desert Community Complex. Both buildings are beautiful and house paintings all over.

Painted Desert Inn
Painted Desert Inn
Drawing at Painted Desert Inn
Drawing at Painted Desert Inn

What else is there?

Besides protecting Petrified Forest, the park also protects hundreds of archeological sites, from pueblos to rock art. These sites can be found throughout the park. The most famous fossils found in the park and highly visible are the petrified logs. But they’re not the only fossils found at the park, there are fossils found from pollen, spores, plants, animals and dinosaurs.

The park rents out bicycles and e-bikes; biking can be done on the paved park roads and parking areas. Horseback riding is also allowed on the designated horseback riding trails. Geocaching is a possibility, there are caches throughout the park.

There’s an artist-in-residence program with new artists each year. They give cultural demonstrations in the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark. There are 2 bookstores in the park. Our suitcases were heavier after the visit to this park.

The Painted Desert
The Painted Desert

Entrance

The park has 2 entrances a North and a South entrance. We entered at the South entrance and exited at the North entrance. Near the South entrance is a gift shop, and it’s off Highway 180. At the North entrance is a convenience store, a gift shop, restaurant and gas station. It’s off Interstate 40.

The Petrified Forest National Park is open year round, except on Christmas Day. Opening times are from 8am till 5pm.

The Painted Desert
The Painted Desert

Address:

North:

1 Park Road, #2217

Petrified Forest, AZ 86028

South:

Holbrook

AZ 86025

Entrance fee is $25,- for auto-7 day pass, $15,- for bike/per person, a motorcycle is $20,-. The annual pass for the park is $45,-. We had a America the Beautiful Pass, which allows you to enter all National Parks a year long.

Where to stay

There’s no camping in Petrified Forest National Park, they don’t have a campground. Nearest places to stay are at Holbrook. We stayed at the Best Western Arizonian Inn. The Historic WigWam Motel with vintage cars outside looked like a fun place to stay.

Where to eat

The Mesa Italiana restaurant in Holbrook is a good place for dinner. The park has a restaurant near the North entrance.

Petrified Forest National Park is a wonderful park,

we want to visit again. We attempted to visit in 2015 on our road trip through the States, but arrived too late and the park was already closed. Will try again on future trips to the USA.

The park was already closed, showing Yuri some petrified logs outside. The logs (4 pieces)are lit up by the car headlights. Yuri and Paul stand in front of them.
The park was already closed, showing Yuri some petrified logs outside

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