Petrified Forest National Park is one of the more unique national parks. The park is famed for its fossils. The desert landscape was once a vast forest. Over millions of years, that forest died out and the only remains of that forest are the fossilized wood left behind. In 2012, I was on a cross-country road trip from Tennessee to Colorado. I took a little detour to stop and visit Petrified Forest National Park. I was a college student on a budget and wanted to save as much money as possible. I wanted to camp in Petrified Forest but the park doesn’t have a campground. I discovered that if one is willing to hike a mile plus a little, you can get a backcountry permit for camping in the Painted Desert region of the Petrified Forest.
What is the Petrified Forest National Park?
Petrified Forest National Park is exactly what the name states. It is an area located in eastern Arizona along Interstate 40 (I-40) where millions of year ago a large forest stood. Today, the area is a desert where the fossilized remains of these trees can be found. The trees would fall over where they would be buried and over time silica combined with the organic matter to petrify the wood. The park has many other fossils than just wood. Animal bones, leaves, fish, and seeds have all been found in the park. The conditions in the area were perfect for preservation.
The park is part of the historic U.S Route 66 which is a National Scenic Bay way between Chicago and Los Angeles. It is often a stop on a Southwestern US National Park road trip either on the way to the Grand Canyon or on the way back from the Grand Canyon. There are several exhibits in the park commemorating the route.
The park has an arid landscape with colorful badlands and rolling hills. Petrified wood is found thru out the park. Most of the fossils are from the Late Triassic Period. Signs of early Americans have been found in the park such at petroglyphs and the remains of the pit houses. The most famous of their petroglyphs was almost thrown away as rubble during the Civilian Conservation Corps work in 1934. Thankfully someone was paying attention as the young men moved the stone and found this epic cat petroglyph on the underside of the rock. This glyph can be seen at the visitor center.
Unlike most national parks, Petrified Forest National Park road is only open for 8am-5pm everyday. This is to help limit the theft of fossil from the park. Please don’t do this. One it means that the fossil is no longer there for other to enjoy. Two its just going to go home and sit on a self so why not leave it be. Three, if caught there are fines and jail time for taking them.
Camping in the Petrified Forest National Park
There are no campgrounds in Petrified Forest National Park. There are no federal campground in the area. The closest campground is the KOA located Holbrook which is about 20 mins from the park entrances.
Other nearby campgrounds include Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest (1 hour), Canyon de Chelly National Monument (1.5 hours away), Blue Water State Park (1.75 hours), and El Morro National Monument (2 hours away)
The only way to camp in Petrified Forest National Park is to get a backcountry camping permit to camp in Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area.
Getting a Backcountry Permit
Petrified Forest National Wilderness Backcountry permit allows a group of 8 people or less to camp anywhere within a given wilderness backcountry area as long as certain rules are met. The permits are free. They are issued at the Painted Desert Visitor Center or Rainbow Forest Museum. The new rules require that permits be picked up at least an hour before park closing.
The number of permits is limited. I can’t find the exact number per zone but they rarely run out of permits. There are 5 backcountry zones in the Wilderness areas.
Four of the zones are located in the northern section of the park with parking at the Painted Desert Inn lot. The last zone is in the southern section of the park that parking lot is disclosed when you pick-up your permit.
To pick-up a permit you need to know which zone you would like to camp in as well as a general destination. The ranger and help you pick this out if you don’t already have plans. Most backpackers head to the northern section of park. My favorite section is called the Black Forest which is in Zone 2.
Petrified Forest Backcountry Camping Permit Rules
The rules for the permit are simple follow Leave No Trace camping principles. could not collect plants, rocks, petrified wood, fossils, or archaeological objects (This rule applies to the park at all times). No wood or charcoal fires. Bury human waste. Pack it in, pack it out. Leave no trash.
If heading into the northern section of wilderness, one must camp north of Lithodendron Wash which is about a mile from the Painted Desert Inn parking lot.
What to Pack for Camping in the Painted Desert
Backcountry camping in the painted desert has a unique set of challenges. There are no officially marked trails past Lithodendron Wash. There might be a few cairns here and there as unofficial markers.
There is no water available once you are in the backcountry. Plan on 1 gallon of water per person per day. Don’t mess with this number, it is fair better have more water than you need than run out while you are in the backcountry. Plan food for the number of days you plan to be hiking.
Cell service can be spotty in this region. I would carry a GPS and compass. While at the visitor center, pick up a detailed map of the region you are going to be hiking in.
I only did an overnight so I packed the following.
- 1-man tent
- Sleeping bag
- Inflatable sleeping pad
- Camp Stove and fuel
- Food Bag
- Can of Chicken Noodle Soup
- Pack of Crackers
- 4 Granola Bars
- Pot and utensils
- 3 L of Water
- Change of Socks
- Jogging Shorts to sleep in
- Trekking Poles
There are not any critters to really worry about breaking into your food stores so park services just recommends keeping them in your tent. Carrying bear barrel would be an added protection. I didn’t bring one and had no issues.
I wish I had brought a windshield for my camping stove. During my evening in the desert, I hiked about 100ft away from my campsite and tired to get my camping stove lit. The wind was relentless. I couldn’t find or work out a way to block the wind long enough to get the stove lit and my soup heated. After my third attempt, I gave up and had cold soup and crackers for dinner.
*** Do not light your stove in your tent. You risk carbon monoxide poising or setting your tent on fire.
Finding a Campsite in the Painted Desert
For my Painted Desert camping adventure, I had a late start getting out of Saguaro National Park. I barely made it in time to get my permit and that meant I had limited time to hike out to Lithodendron Wash and find a campsite.
By the time, I got my gear ready and headed out I had about an hour and half before sunset. I headed away from the Painted Desert Inn and into the desert. The mile to the Lithodendron Wash is an easy flat trail with very little elevation gain. Once at the Wash, I was on my own.
There are two schools of though when picking a backcountry campsite. One is to look for a campsite that hasn’t been used previously. This helps spread the wear and tear out. The other is to pick a spot that has already been used to keep the damage confined to one area.
I tend to lean towards the spread the wear and tear out but I found that in the Painted Desert there were a few other more pressing concerns.
The first concern was finding somewhere with a little protection from the wind. I mentioned earlier that it was relentless. There is very little to block the wind so the gusts can be strong.
I had to balance finding wind protection with elevation in case of a flood. Yes, it’s a desert but if a thunderstorm occurs flooding could happen. I didn’t want to find myself caught in a flood if I could help it.
Hiking in the desert isn’t as easy as it would seem. The soil is loose and like to give out when stepping downhill. I found that out the hard way. I saw a promising campsite. I started working my way down to the stop. I planted my trekking pole and left foot when the soil gave out. Down I went. I slid about 10 ft before I managed to stop myself. I did a quick assessment and found I had cut my left leg.
Things to Remember
- Check in with someone before you leave. Let them know where you are going and exactly when to expect you to call them and let them know you are back. I usually give my mother a hard deadline a couple of hours after I expect to be out.
Painted Desert Camping has been one of my favorite experiences. Where is your favorite campsite?