PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
What is Petrified Forest? (Wonderland)
Have you ever felt like you were in another dimension? Visiting Petrified Forest is like tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole and falling into Wonderland.
It is a portal into another time and place. Logs are made of rock and filled with sparkling crystals of various colors. Enormous moguls made of hardened whipped marshmallow and painted with blue, gray and purple stripes fill the landscape along a paved path.
This place is quite the spectacle and one I highly recommend that you visit. Be sure to bring your own tea. The Mad Hatter seems to have vacated his post.
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Flagstaff to Petrified Forest (Blinded by the light)
Julie and I stayed in Flagstaff for our Arizona adventures in early December, 2021. This was a nice base camp as we traveled to Grand Canyon, Sedona and Petrified Forest.
We took Route 40 East from Flagstaff to Petrified Forest. The drive is scenic and interesting to say the least.
The landscapes vary with alternating sections of dry, pale scrub brush giving way to giant, rugged, chocolate rocky structures that seem out of place in these vast fields of nothingness.
Sometimes these rocks form obvious structures. In other spots, they appear as if a heavenly dump truck emptied its bed of massive boulders in the middle of nowhere. Mesas and buttes can be seen in the distant horizon.
Hailing from Ohio, these unique rock formations are a pleasure to view during a drive. We do not have anything like this. I could not help but marvel at the vista with a dazed smile on my face.
Pro Tip: If you make this trek in the morning, be sure to wear your sunglasses. You will be driving directly into the beautiful but blinding sun the entire way.
Buttes, mesas and dunes (She’s a butte)
The beautiful vistas in and around Petrified Forest yield buttes, mesas and dunes. They were a sight to behold for this midwesterner.
Sections of the painted desert display distinctive red shades while other portions stand out with blue hues. Both are gorgeous and their differentiations will leave you mesmerized.
Flagstaff meteor crater (The sky is falling)
No, Chicken Little, the sky is not falling but a meteorite did crash into our planet over 50,000 years ago.
You can visit the 150 feet wide crater site about 40 miles outside of Flagstaff on your way to Petrified Forest. In full disclosure, we did not get the opportunity to check this out. You can find more information about the meteor crater here.
If any of you have visited the crater site, I would love to hear about your experience.
A bumpy ride
The main road in Petrified Forest is paved but uneven in many areas, making for a bit of a bumpy ride. It is not a problem, but something you should be aware of.
Take it too fast and you may feel like you are flying out of your seat on a roller coaster hitting a series of short, quick hills. This is great at an amusement park, but not at a national park. Take it slow and you will enjoy the ride and the views.
A forest without trees
Is it possible to have a forest without trees? I had never heard of such a thing.
Petrified Forest has many areas with beautiful names such as Crystal Forest, Rainbow Forest and Jasper Forest. Despite the names, you will not find trees.
These were ancient forests that once thrived but now only leave us with fossilized stone logs, painted dunes and a wondering imagination of what once was. I am in awe of what remains but would love to have a time machine to the past to see these forested lands teeming with life.
Petrified Forest and Painted Desert (Two for one)
Petrified Forest really offers two parks in one. You are graced by the presence of both Petrified Forest and portions of the Painted Desert.
- North – wonderful vistas of painted dunes and badlands
- South – more heavily littered with colorful stone logs
Collectors not welcome
With so much petrified wood on the ground, you may be tempted to snag a free souvenir.
Note that all objects in the park are protected. This is considered theft and you can be fined for such a transgression.
Legend has it that a curse is placed upon anyone who steals petrified wood from the park.
Two park entrances (North & South)
There are two entrances to the park, each with a nearby visitor center.
Both visitor centers offer maps and educational information about the park.
- North – Painted Desert Visitor Center
- South – Rainbow Forest Museum
The main road throughout the park is about 28 miles. It is very feasible to cover the entire park including scenic views and short hikes all within a day. Of course, you may fall in love and want to come back for more.
Julie and I started in the north and headed south. I will take you through the highlights of our adventures.
If you take the southern entrance, these stops will simply be in reverse order. We found all areas to be well-marked.
Tawa Point (Jawa Point)
Embarrassingly, I first read the map as Jawa Point. I had visions in my head of short, humanoid beings in brown hooded robes running through the desert collecting droids.
I quickly realized that the map said Tawa Point. After setting aside my initial disappointment, I reveled in a nice view of the red painted desert.
There are two trailheads here:
- Tawa Trail
- Painted Desert Rim Trail
Julie and I took Painted Desert Rim Trail. It is a 1 mile round trip walk that winds through a series of trees and low-lying vegetation.
Tawa Trail is twice as long and goes through grassland rather than woodland.
You can find more information on all of the park’s hiking trails here.
Wildlife (Look up)
I have to laugh at myself. While I was looking at my phone about wildlife in the park, Julie pointed out three deer just off the path ahead.
We paused to observe them peacefully feeding for a couple minutes before they gracefully disappeared into the horizon.
I personally do not feel that this is one of the more beautiful sections of the park, but it is known for better chances of spotting animals. This proved to be the case for us.
So, I do recommend stopping at Tawa Point. You can find more information about the park’s wildlife here.
Route 66 (Land of the lost)
You can actually drive on or next to parts of iconic Route 66 in Flagstaff, Petrified Forest and a few places in between. It is both an honor and a tragedy to see these historic areas.
In Petrified Forest, there are two great photo opportunities that pay homage to this magical road to the past. There is a Route 66 sign and a rusted body of an old Studebaker.
Pro Tip: Do yourself a favor and make a pit stop in Holbrook to see the Wigwam Motel. It is less than a half-hour drive from either visitor center.
This motel was the inspiration behind the Cozy Cone Motel in the Disney/Pixar film, Cars. Julie and I were giddy with excitement as Radiator Springs came to life right before our very eyes.
Puerco Pueblo (Haunted mansion)
Puerco Pueblo is a .3 mi loop along the remains of a 100 room dwelling that was inhabited by Puebloans over 600 years ago. This is a short, easy walk on a paved path.
Although you may not hear ghostly voices, you can see ancient petroglyphs carved into large boulders heaped in a pile. This place certainly leaves your imagination racing as you wonder what life must have been like back then.
Newspaper Rock (Extra! Extra! Read All About It!)
Our next stop was just down the road from Puerco Pueblo. There is a small parking lot and a very short walk to an overlook complete with viewfinders.
Below you can find over 650 petroglyphs. Some of these are believed to be over 2,000 years old.
This archeological find is called Newspaper Rock due to all the stories etched in stone through the years.
Ravens (Desert scavengers)
Edgar Allan Poe would love this place. Ominous large, black ravens are a common site in the park.
They mean no harm and are just looking for scraps of food. The ravens actually make for great pictures against the backdrop of red rocks or fossilized logs.
The Tepees (Traffic cones)
Most sections of the park drive are relatively flat with gorgeous rock formations in the background.
It is a bit shocking when you stumble upon a couple enormous chalky cones with bold stripes in varying shades of red, gray, white, blue and purple. These stunning layered roadside mountains, dubbed The Tepees, take your breath away.
My inner child instantly began shouting, “Stop the car! Stop the car!” I had to get a firsthand view of these traffic cones.
Thankfully, there is a roadside pullout so you have ample opportunity to take photographs.
Pro Tip: If you came through the north park entrance and are headed south when you encounter the Tepees, be sure to take pictures from the other direction as well.
The sunlight is typically more favorable from the southern entrance heading north.
You will notice a little more pop in the colorful layers from that direction.
Blue Mesa (Your baby always looks good in blue)
In 1990, Expose released a song titled, “Your Baby Never Looked Good in Blue.” Sorry Expose, but I must disagree with you on this one. Mesas always look good in blue.
The Blue Mesa is my favorite area of Petrified Forest. There is a 3.5 mile loop road to drive and a 1 mile paved loop where you can walk along the base of mesas crafted of meringue and perfectly striped with layers of gray, white, blue and purple. God’s handiwork is on fully display.
On this trail, you truly feel like you are part of the park and become one with nature. Tears are welling up in my eyes as I think about it. If you only take one hike in the park, I suggest the Blue Mesa Trail.
I should give you a heads up that the first section of the path is a bit steep. This means that you have a short, steep incline at the very end of your walk. Trust me, it is worth it.
Agate Bridge (Bridge to the past)
A little further south from Blue Mesa you will find another parking area. Just beyond this small lot, you will see Agate Bridge.
This is a 110 foot long petrified log that spans a gulley. Unfortunately you cannot cross this bridge. It is a metaphorical bridge to the past.
Crystal Forest (Rainbows and log-i-pops)
Crystal Forest is one of your best chances to experience fossilized logs up close. This is a pretty flat, paved loop that is about .75 mile long.
This area looks like Paul Bunyan cleared an entire forest with his mighty ax, leaving behind magical stone logs filled with rainbow crystals.
In my mind, this is another must-see spot. The walk is easy and the scenery is gorgeous. You won’t regret it.
Giant Logs (Feeling small)
Be sure to stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum. There are great educational displays and a gift shop.
Behind the museum is s short .4 mile paved loop through Giant Logs. A couple of these toppled stone trees had me questioning if I was a man or a mouse.
There are a few stairs but the path is easy. There are plenty of great photo opportunities here as well.
Long Logs and Agate House (Lincoln Logs)
There is another 2.6 mile trial near Rainbow Forest Museum that will take you through Long Logs and Agate House.
The area is strewn with different sized rock logs and includes a pueblo made of petrified wood. It is reminiscent of a play area where a young child attempts to construct a Lincoln Log cabin and playfully tosses aside many of the toy logs.
Plan Your Trip to Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest is often overlooked when people think of national parks.
I think you will find this underrated park worth of your time.
The scenery is surreal between the petrified logs and the multi-colored layered dunes. You will learn a lot about history between the petroglyphs, Pueblo dwellings, geological formations and Route 66.
The park offers several short, easy walks. Although there is a lot to see, it can be easily accomplished in a day or half-day.
I hope you find this information helpful as you plan your Petrified Forest adventure. Be sure to check out the Petrified Forest website for current information and updates as you plan your trip.
Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey
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About the author
Scott McConkey is a nationally syndicated travel writer and the founder of Miles with McConkey, where he provides vacationers and travel enthusiasts with trip ideas, travel guides, and inspiration. His travel articles have been seen in The Associated Press wire, ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC, MSN, and many more. He and his wife, Julie, left the corporate world after nearly 30 years for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year has evolved into a second act. She creates visual content while he utilizes the written word. Their goal is to create content inspiring others to travel more and live their best lives now.