In the northeast of Arizona near Holbrook, Arizona is Petrified Forest National Park. While Petrified Forest National Park is known for its large deposits of petrified wood, this national park offers much more to its visitors. From badlands to unique moon-like landscapes, Petrified Forest National Park has become a popular tourist destination, welcoming over 630,000 visitors every year.
If you’re considering visiting this park, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll tell you all the things you need to know: a background of the park, must-see spots, hiking/trail information, camping information, and where to stay. If you haven’t planned your trip just yet, keep reading, as we’ll surely convince you of why you want to visit.
1. What is Petrified Forest National Park known for?
Located about 25 miles from Holbrook, Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is home to badlands, desert shrub, petrified wood, woodlands, and more. The park is located within Navajo and Apache counties. It was made a national monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962. Now, it is home for many different plant and wildlife species, including blue grama, bunchgrass, coyotes, bobcats, and more. In fact, it has hundreds of species of plants and animals.
Petrified Forest National Park is known for more than its “live” experiences, however, as its site holds over 10,000 years of human history. In the park, you’ll find Puerco Pueblo, an ancient Pueblo town that was occupied between 1200 and 1400 A.D. Some remains of the town still stand and are easily accessible to visitors.
Every year, tourists and locals alike take the Historic Route 66. Did you know that the Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park encompassing a part of the Historic Route 66 alignment? So, if you’re driving along the route, definitely take a moment to stop by the park.
More than anything, the park is known for its amazing forests of petrified wood. You’re probably wondering where the wood came from and why it is so impressive! Well, over 200 million years ago, a bunch of logs washed into the ancient river. They were buried and covered so quickly that their oxygen was cut off and decayed slowed, significantly. The logs absorbed different types of minerals over the hundreds, thousands, and millions of years, and these minerals then crystallized within the logs’ cellular structures. That’s how the crystals that we see in the logs today formed.
Today, observers can see beautiful “petrified wood,” which are actually just large pieces of crystal. Most of the crystals are solid quartz, but you can also find amethyst and citrine. The park is especially fun to visit when it’s sunny, as the sun reflecting off the crystals causes them to shine.
The park offers a variety of activities, including hiking, horseback riding, guided tours, geocaching, and scheduled events. Whether you’re interested in a nice day horseback riding or an exhilarating hike, Petrified Forest National Park is the spot for you.
2. What are the top spots to see in Petrified Forest National Park?
Though it’s not as big as other national parks, there are a lot of things to see and do within the Petrified Forest National Park. If you only have a day or two to visit, you should definitely prioritize what’s most important for you to see. Lucky for you, we’ve taken that burden off of your shoulders. Here are the five best spots to see in the park, in no particular order:
- Crystal Forest
- Rainbow Forest
- Painted Desert
- Blue Mesa
- Puerco Pueblo
Chances are you want to see some petrified wood, right? There’s no better place to do so than Crystal Forest. Located in the northern part of the park, Crystal Forest is a bit further away from many of the other park attractions. To get there, you’ll take a short walk (more info on that below); it’s quite flat and well-maintained, so don’t worry too much about the hike.
Crystal Forest is one of the best places in the park to see the petrified wood up close. There, you’ll be able to really see the different colored crystals. It’ll feel like you’re experiencing history by just being there! Additionally, Crystal Forest has a beautiful landscape and gives you great views of the surrounding environment. Crystal Forest is often cited as the visitors’ favorite part of the park, so definitely don’t miss out on this one.
Another awesome place to see the petrified wood is Rainbow Forest, a deposit of petrified wood in the southern part of the park. When President Roosevelt originally deemed Petrified Forest National Park as a national monument in 1906, Rainbow Forest was the heart of the monument and its main attraction. Now, there are various places to see petrified wood, but the spirit of the park still remains in Rainbow Forest. That, and you can see the amazing crystallized petrified wood.
Think you can guess why it’s called Rainbow Forest? Yep, because of the different colors of the crystals! We mentioned earlier that there are different types of crystals – not only are there different types of crystals, there are different varieties of quartz. The result is that the petrified wood gives off a rainbow feel, as there is a rainbow of colors!
If rainbow colors speak to you, then you definitely don’t want to miss out on the painted desert. We highly recommend visiting the Painted Desert if you’re in the Petrified Forest National Park. As it is one of America’s wonders and accessible both in and out of the park, you might as well take a look if you’re already at the park.
Located in the Four Corners area, the Painted Desert is a badlands desert giving off a painted vibe, due to its layers of different colored rock. You can access the Painted Desert from a variety of points and trails, but one of the easiest is right in the Petrified Forest National Park. There is a short trail that offers visitors access to the brilliant desert – and when we say short, we mean it. It’s only 1-mile round-trip, so you can easily see it and the petrified wood on the same day. Double whammy!
Another unique part of the park is Blue Mesa, a badlands displaying green, blue, white, and lavender deposits of bentonite clay. These deposits are believed to be over 200 million years old. Additionally, Blue Mesa is home to petrified wood, so you’ll see both the cool clay deposits and petrified wood in one go.
Blue Mesa is very unique, due to the colors that the bentonite clay and Chinle Shale display. Many desert landscapes have warm colors (i.e. reds, oranges, and yellows), but this one has cool colors (blues, greens, and purples). The sheer size and brilliance of the desert both shocks and stuns visitors. You can reach the Blue Mesa through a walking trail or drive.
Last but certainly not least is Puerco Pueblo, the ruins of an ancient town. The Pueblo’s lived on this site between 1200 and 1400 A.D., with peak civilization believed to be in the 1300s A.D. The ruins contain over 100 rooms as well as Agate House, a separate site in the park with eight rooms.
In addition to the rooms, visitors can also see ancient petroglyphs in Puerco Pueblo – over 800 of them. A highlight of the petroglyphs is the solar marker, which records major astronomical events. Puerco Pueblo is a family-friendly site and a great place to learn a bit about the history of ancient Native American settlements and see ancient ruins in person.
3. Hiking/Trails Information
There are a variety of different ways to see the petrified wood in Petrified Forest National Park. Even more, the national park has plant life, wildlife, views, and remains of an old town. This is a perfect park to go to with babies and pets, or a perfect park if you are not a big hiker but still want to enjoy the outdoors.
If you want a less strenuous (but still stunning!) trip, here are some good trail options for you.
- Crystal Forest Trail: Perhaps the best trail to see the petrified wood deposits is this short, 0.75-mile round-trip loop. The hike offers you a chance to see the incredible crystals in the petrified logs. Trail Level: Easy
- Painted Desert Rim Trail: This 1-mile round-trip trail takes you through a nice walk in the Painted Desert. It is an unpaved trail that goes through the rim woodland, where you can see many plants and animals, and of course, amazing views of the Painted Desert. Trail Level: Easy to Moderate
- Blue Mesa: A must-do is Blue Mesa, a trail that takes you through the badland hills of blue bentonite clay and petrified wood. It is a 1-mile round-trip loop that descends from the mesa and brings you through incredible views. Trail Level: Moderate
- Puerco Pueblo: A great option for everyone is the Puerco Pueblo walk, a short 0.3-mile round-trip loop. This paved trail takes you through the remains of a hundred-room small town (pueblo in Spanish) where the Pueblo people lived over 600 years ago. You can even find petroglyphs on this trail! Trail Level: Easy
- Long Logs Trail and Agate House Trail (combined): Though they can be done separately, we recommend combining Long Logs Trail (1.6-mile loop) and Agate House Trail (2-mile round-trip). When combined, they make a 2.6-mile round-trip trail. With Long Logs, you’ll walk through one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood available in the park. It is at the base of gray badlands and is a beautiful, moderate walk. Agate House Trail offers visitors a chance to see remains of an eight-room house in a small pueblo. Trail Level: Easy to Moderate
- Giant Logs: If you love logs, this is the trail for you. A short 0.4-mile loop will walk you through some of the most colorful and largest logs in the park. This is a quick, fun way to see the logs in the park. Trail Level: Easy
For all you serious hikers, there are a variety of longer hikes and backpacking routes that you can do in Petrified Forest National Park.
Here are four of the longer day hikes that we recommend, all of these trails are moderate to challenging, depending on the weather:
- Billings Gap: This overlook is a 3-mile round-trip hike that takes you to a viewpoint of Billings Gap between Blue Mesa and the eastern landform.
- Blue Forest: You can do this stunning hike one-way (1.5 miles) or round-trip (3 miles). If you choose to just do it one-way, you need to book a shuttle in advance to pick you up at the end. This hike takes you through the unique and stunning blue and white badland hills.
- Dead Wash Overlook: Dead Wash Overlook is a 4-mile round-trip hike that takes you through the Black Forest of petrified wood, the grasslands, and to an amazing overlook.
- Red Basin Clam Beds: The longest day hike is the Red Basin Clam Beds hike, an 8.5-mile round trip off-the-beaten-path trail. This trail takes you through a newer part of the park, one that was included in a 2004 expansion. There, you’ll experience petrified wood, badlands, and fossil clam beds.
Multi-day backpacking trips are permitted in the park, with a backcountry permit. You must obtain this permit the day you’d like to camp from the Painted Desert Visitor Center or the Rainbow Forest Museum.
As always, be sure to read up on the Petrified Forest National Park hiking rules, regulations, and guidelines before visiting. The temperature varies greatly between seasons, so ensure that you are properly prepared for the climate. Certain trails and/or parts of the park may be closed during your planned visit, so check out the National Park Service website before visiting.
4. Camping Information
Camping is allowed at Petrified Forest National Park, though there are no organized campsites or hookups. Backcountry camping is welcomed with a backcountry permit. Permits are free and have to be obtained the day you’d like to camp from the Rainbow Forest Museum or Painted Desert Visitor Center. Camping can be done anywhere in the park, as long as it is more than one mile away from either parking lot.
If backcountry camping isn’t for you, there are a variety of private campgrounds near Petrified Forest National Park, but there are none within the park.
5. Where To Stay in Petrified Forest National Park
Although Painted Desert Inn used to be the lodging of choice for visitors, it is unfortunately no longer an accommodation option. Worry not, however, as there are plenty of options for you to get a good night’s rest.
The most popular lodging option is hotels, and there are a variety of them for you to choose from. Some highly recommended hotels are:
All of these hotels are located close to the park and may offer shuttles or transportation to and from the park. If hotels aren’t for you, AirBnB’s are another great option. There aren’t many hostels or Glamping options nearby, but with lots of hotels and AirBnB’s, you’ll definitely find a place to stay. Try to book ahead if possible for the best prices and places.
As you can see, Petrified Forest National Park is an amazing national park and so worthy of a visit. Whether you’re passing through Arizona to the Grand Canyon or delegate a family vacation specifically for this park, you’re sure to enjoy the incredible petrified wood and learn tons about science, geology, and history. What else could you ask for in a national park?!
Consider another article for more places to visit while in Arizona – 14 Things That Arizona Is Famous For.