The Petrified Forest National Park is home to one of the best views in the world of exposed petrified wood, but it’s also a whole lot more.
The easiest access to the park is from I-40, and that’s the way I’ll start in describing this amazing place. The Petrified Forest itself is toward the south end of the park, with the Painted Desert on the north. I’ll have more later on accessing the park from different directions. As with most of the western US, make sure that you have plenty of gas because there aren’t many filling stations in the area. There is a gas station at the north visitor’s center.
Even from the highway, you can see some of the great petrified logs (along with some of the weirdest dinosaur sculptures you can imagine) if you’re heading eastbound from Holbrook.
Heading westbound from Gallup, you’re treated to a hint of the amazing colored hills of the Painted Desert. You have to get into the park, though, to really see them, and that’s good, because if you take a few hours to explore Petrified Forest National Park, you’ll also see rock art (petroglyphs) and an abandoned pueblo. You can do hikes and camp within the park boundaries as well. Most views are handicapped accessible, but the trails are not.
After exiting the highway and just before the north entrance to the park, there’s a very nice visitor’s center, with a large gift shop and a restaurant, so it’s a good place to take a break on I-40, even if you don’t have time for the park itself. There are samples of the petrified wood and a nice film about the park shown in the visitor’s center.
If you have just a short time to stop, you can still see the Painted Desert and then come back to the highway easily. The Petrified Forest is a little farther into the park, so be sure to leave more time if you want to go that far. The whole trip is just 28 miles and an hour’s drive (if you make just a few stops), but it can take you several hours if you stop to see everything and get out on the trails. As an aside, there are bathrooms available at the visitor’s centers and at the Painted Desert Inn, just a little distance north of the visitor’s center.
The first few miles of the drive from the visitor’s center pass along the rim of the Painted Desert. Like so many places in Arizona, you really need to go there to get the full impact. Pictures and words don’t give you a proper sense of the scale of this place. This is badland country, with little or no vegetation anywhere. This is a good thing for the park visitor, because you get a great view of the multiple bands of rock that make up the Painted Desert.
If you have a little time, you can hike down into the desert to get a closer look at this remarkable landscape, too.
Be sure to look closely at the hills, where you can see a pretty neat effect of Arizona’s weather. Because the rains come in bursts instead of long days of rain, the top portion of the soil absorbs a great deal of moisture before the bottom part has a chance to get wet. When there’s enough water soaked into the top, the whole mass will slip down the hillside. As a result, the hills tend to have a stepped appearance.
As the road turns west and then back south, you can see across the badlands for many, many miles. Just how far you can see is determined by the atmospheric conditions, but the mountains on the far horizon are 60 miles or more away.
The landscape changes somewhat after the road passes under I-40 (no access at this point) and crosses the Puerco River. It’s still barren country, but it’s higher and displays different rock layers. Puerco Pueblo is on the east side of the highway and worth a stop. A short and fairly easy path takes you through the ruins. Be sure to look for the petroglyphs, which are fairly close and easy to see here.
A little farther down the road on the west side (on the right if you’re coming from I-40), down a spur road, is Newspaper Rock. The rock is quite a ways down the hill from where you park, and there’s a telescope for your use to bring the petroglyphs into view. A good pair of binoculars is better, if you have them. Even though it’s hard to see, the stop is well worth it. The rock is just covered with petroglyphs.
Continuing south, the road passes between some beautiful hills and into the area of the Petrified Forest itself. If you have time, take the short detour to visit Blue Mesa. There’s another short hike and several stops to see the logs there.
If you’re running short on time, head for the south entrance and stop at the Giant Logs. This short, easy walk takes you out into an area of densely concentrated petrified logs. You can really feel like you’re in the remains of a petrified forest there.
There’s another gift shop at this end of the park, though not as complete as the one by I-40.
The south end of the park is accessible by US-180, which runs from Holbrook on the west to St. Johns on the east. If you are coming up from the south or west, coming along US-180 to the south entrance and doing the trip through the park south to north will save doubling back (not that there’s anything wrong with doing that!). If you are heading west on I-40, the easiest way to get back to the Interstate is to go west on US-180 to Holbrook.
Just as an aside, going through Holbrook is fun – there are silly dinosaur sculptures and legal places to buy petrified wood there, as well as restaurants, gas stations, and the old Route 66, the Wigwam Motel (inspiration for the “Cozy Cone” in the movie “Cars”).
Remember that removing artifacts, including petrified wood, from Petrified Forest National Park is a federal offense, and if you’re caught you can spend time in jail and have hefty fines. If you buy petrified wood outside the park before coming, make sure to tell the nice rangers about it when you arrive.