Getting off the well-beaten path: Why you should visit Petrified Forest National Park
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If someone asked you to quickly name a dozen or more of our country’s national parks, odds are Petrified Forest National Park wouldn’t immediately come to mind.
In fact, it wasn’t until our recent trip to Arizona and Utah that I realized that Petrified Forest is indeed a national park. To me, Petrified Forest sounds more like a title in the old “Hardy Boys” book series — maybe something like “The Secret Shadows of Petrified Forest” — than an area managed by the National Park Service.
But Petrified Forest is not only a national park — it’s one worth adding to your bucket list.
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What is Petrified Forest National Park?
Occupying more than 221,000 acres in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park gets its name from the otherworldly landscapes found within its borders. It was established initially as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and became a full-fledged national park in 1962.
Colorful petrified wood created over the course of a couple hundred million years can be found scattered across the semi-arid setting, home to hundreds of animal species ranging from coyotes and bobcats to golden eagles and rattlesnakes.
The colors showcased in the petrified wood are spectacularly rich and vibrant. You’ll see a mix of reds, browns, yellows, blues and purples, among other hues, that appear as minerals and metals are absorbed by the wood over time.
The variance in the colors makes the wood truly memorizing, but there’s more to this park than its unique flora.
You can also catch a stunning sunset, enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities, watch cultural demonstrations and even check out a variety of fossils that are more than 200 million years old.
Petrified Forest is a bit removed from major cities in the West but you can easily reach it during a road trip. Its location just off Interstate 40 and U.S. Route 180 in Arizona’s Navajo County places it about 360 miles southeast of Las Vegas, roughly 200 miles northeast of Phoenix, approximately 210 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and about 110 miles southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona.
There are two entrances to the park: one at the north end by I-40 and another at the south end by U.S. Route 180. Since we were also visiting Utah during this trip, we decided to enter from the north and exit at the southern end.
To drive into the park, you’ll need to pay a $25 fee that is valid for seven days or use an annual national park pass. We used our lifetime America the Beautiful Senior Pass, which offers one of the best deals in travel for those who qualify. The lifetime option we have costs just $80 per person.
Since this park isn’t as busy as others in the national park system — it welcomes roughly 800,000 visitors annually versus the millions of park-goers that flock to more popular options every year, according to the NPS — you don’t need to make an advance reservation to visit. So, we showed up to the north entrance at 7:30 a.m. (just before the park and its two visitor centers opened at 8 a.m.) to get in as soon as rangers started allowing visitors to enter.
You can typically stay in the park until 6 p.m., though hours are usually extended as the days get longer.
What to see
With so much to see and do here, it’s important to plan your visit around how long you’ll be in the park. We found a half-day visit more than adequate to get a taste of everything the park has to offer.
Shortly after entering the park from the north, you’ll come across numerous overlooks and pullouts that allow you to see and enjoy the rolling and colorful panoramic topography of the surrounding Painted Desert.
Continue down the 28-mile road to discover various Route 66 sights, including old telephone poles, an abandoned 1932 Studebaker and the historic Painted Desert Inn. Set atop a ridge at the northernmost part of the park road, the inn once served those traveling the iconic route. Nowadays, it houses a museum and a seasonal ice cream parlor. It was originally built with petrified wood and native stone but has since been renovated to have an adobe facade.
Venture a little farther down the road to travel even further back in time to when ancestral Puebloans called the area home. More than 800 archaeological sites sit within the park, though the village remains of Puerco Pueblo are particularly impressive. The rectangular structure with 100-plus rooms once surrounded an open-air plaza. Next to it you’ll find a short loop walkway that takes you to a petroglyph ceremonially used to identify the summer solstice.
More petroglyphs up to 2,000 years old lie close by at Newspaper Rock. While you won’t be able to see them up close due to safety concerns, there’s an observation stand with a powerful telescope where you can get a good look at the drawings.
Continue on south past impressive conical-shaped hills — appropriately called The Tepees — to reach the Blue Mesa area, which features stunning multicolored geologic stratas in an array of desert hues and petrified wood depositse. You can get out and explore via the 1-mile paved loop trail before continuing south to see more of the park’s famous petrified wood in places like Agate Bridge, Jasper Forest, Crystal Forest and Giant Logs.
Where to stay
We weren’t quite up for camping, the only option for sleeping inside the park, so we decided to stay 18 miles away in Holbrook, Arizona, at LaQuinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Holbrook Petrified Forest. The three-star Wyndham property was clean, updated and comfortable and we found the free breakfast offerings satisfying. There was a small pool, too, but we didn’t end up taking advantage of that amenity during our stay.
Best Western, Days Inn, Howard Johnson and Econo Lodge outposts are also available in Holbrook for those seeking additional points options.
There’s even a motel with accommodations shaped like teepees, should you want to sleep in a Wigwam Village Motel much like many did when driving Route 66 during its heyday.
I quite enjoyed Petrified Forest National Park. While it may not be a common destination in and of itself, it is a worthy stop that can easily be part of a vacation in the area.
For example, you could head west on I-40 after your Petrified Forest visit to see Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, more Route 66 nostalgia in Winslow, Arizona, and the cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon National Monument. Petrified Forest could also be tacked on to a Grand Canyon vacation, as that site is just three hours away in the northwestern part of the state.
So, if you’re looking for a different kind of outdoor adventure that’s away from most of the crowds, put this park on your to-do list.
If not this year, then next (or whenever works for you). After all, the park has so far stood the test of time — lots and lots of time.
Featured photo by Buddy Smith for The Points Guy.
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