Did you know that Arizona was once a tropical landscape filled with green plants, rivers and yes, dinosaurs? It’s difficult to imagine now when we look out at the rocks and scrubby plants.
However here and there you can spot the evidence at Petrified Forest National Park in the colorful rocks that resemble trees, stumps and branches. That’s because they were trees!
As these trees died in the Triassic Period they might have fallen into rivers and streams and were then covered by sediment. The wood soaked up the minerals and crystalized over time creating the colorful stones we see today.
Visit this fascinating park to learn about the ancient history of the area, from the times of the dinosaurs until today. The region was home to prehistoric peoples who left traces of their lives behind in pottery shards, arrowheads and amazing petroglyphs.
The park is also near historic Route 66 which starts in Chicago and stretches to Los Angeles. The road had and still has special connotations of freedom and adventure. It was decommissioned in 1985 after faster highways replaced it. You can still find traces of it along the route and visit a marker within the park boundaries.
Throughout the park you will find chunks and shards of petrified trees. Some are still buried in the ground while other places wind and water have revealed them.
Erosion and plate tectonics has also shaped the landscape over time. You’ll also notice colorful sedimentary rocks across the park in blues, purples and reds. These stripes and shades were formed by sediments deposited by rivers about 200 million years ago.
Entrance to the park is currently $20 per vehicle but if you have an America the Beautiful annual pass it is free. If you will visit more than one National Park in a year I highly recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful pass which gives you free access to the parks. You can purchase the pass here.
Most visitors use the 28 mile long park road to travel though the area and stop to see the main sights. There are no campgrounds in the park, but it is possible to wilderness camp while backpacking.
You can start your visit at the visitor center called the Rainbow Forest Museum to learn about the history and ecology of the area. There is a short trail next to the building with some of the largest petrified logs in the park, making a good introduction to other sites you will see.
While I found the petrified logs very interesting, my favorite part of the park to hike was Blue Mesa. This short one mile loop takes you around a colorful otherworldly landscape of purple striped hills.
Newspaper Rock is a striking reminder of the people who lived in the region. They left their marks on a large rock. Some of the petrogylphs are more than 2000 years old. You can’t get close to the rock but you can see it from an overlook using a telescope to see the drawings up close.
There are several developed trails in the park but if you want to explore on your own head to the backcountry to walk off trail.
If you are a fan of architecture and history be sure to stop by the Painted Desert Inn to see the beautiful building designed by Mary Jane Coulter and its fabulous murals and furnishings. Curious about National Park architecture? Take a look at our Parkitecture Guide!
Another interesting historical sight is the old rusty car at the Route 66 marker.
It should be mentioned that you should not disturb any petrified wood or fossils, and you cannot collect samples. You should also not touch any petroglyphs or other artifacts you might find in the park.
If you don’t want to backpack in the park and sleep in a tent, there are some options for lodgings near the park in Holbrook, Arizona. You can also look for lodgings in Winslow, about 50 miles from the park.
One of my favorite kitschy roadside motels is the Wigwam Motel which consists of 15 private teepee-like structures. Well, actually they are only teepee-like in appearance as they are made of plaster and wood rather than more ephemeral materials. Typically you’ll also find a collection of vintage cars parked in front of each teepee.
Here are some area hotels and motels you might enjoy:
Once you’ve explored the petrified forest, check out the local area for more interesting things to do and see. Holbrook, Arizona is nearby as well as Winslow, Arizona. Both have excellent Route 66 and old west history as well as a few gastronomic delights. Here are a few ideas:
Enjoy your visit to Petrified Forest National Park! Traveling around Arizona? Take a look at our guide to things to do in Tucson, check out the best places to stay in Sedona, and find out about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument too!
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