Standing before this sprawling desert, imagine a vast forest. Millions of years ago, this desert was inhabited by a vast Late Triassic forest. Today, all that remains is fossilized remains of the trees. Today these fossils are protected by Petrified Forest National Park. Petrified Forest National Park reminds us of how the world has changed over millions of years. Here is the best way to spend one day in Petrified Forest National Park.
About Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is about 220 thousand acres. The parks is the 31th largest national park. The park was created as a National Monument on December 8, 1906. It wasn’t elevated to a National Park until December 9, 1962. Petrified Forest is a major stop along the Historic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angles.
As the name of the park suggests, Petrified Forest National Park is famous for its fossils, mostly the fossil of fallen trees. About 225 million years ago, the park was home to a giant Late Triassic forest located near the equator. As the tectonic plates moved, the land shifted and this forest was lost and the rivers and sea covered the fallen trees with sediments and fossilized the trees.
From a human standpoint, the first human inhabitants arrived in Petrified Forest National Park about 8,000 years ago. Over 600 archaeological sites have been found in the park. A few of their petroglyphs can be seen with a short hike from the park road. The first European visitors to the park arrived in the 1800’s. In 1853, a U.S army survey team first reported their observation of the petrified trees. The early geologist removed hundreds of tons of petrified wood. A Polish geologist once removed 10 train cars full of petrified wood from the park. As the 1900’s arrived, local residents realized the continued removal of the wood was decimating the land. They started pushing for the national park. Their work led to the creation of Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906.
Even today, theft of petrified wood is still an issue for the park. An estimated 22 thousand pounds is stolen from the park a year. Please leave the wood where you found it.
Getting to Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park has 2 park entrances. The parks north entrance is located at Exit 311 I-40. The parks south entrance is located off US 180. The park is perfect stop for people traveling to or from Albuquerque, NM to Flagstaff, AZ.
The park doesn’t really have any nearby airports. The closest airport is the small airport in Gallup, New Mexico. Gallup is about a hour and fifteen minutes from the park. About two hours away is the airport in Flagstaff. If planning on visiting Petrified National Park as part of a road trip, you can fly into Phoenix Arizona or Albuquerque, New Mexico.
There is no public transport to the Petrified Forest National Park.
Where to stay in Petrified Forest National Park
There are no campgrounds or lodges in Petrified Forest National Park. The park does offer backcountry camping, but that is it.
The Painted Desert Inn is located in the park but the Inn no longer offers overnight stays.
The only hotels near the park are located in the town of Holbrook. Holbrook is the largest town near the park. The town is located to the west of the park and offers a range of hotel options.
24 hours in Petrified Forest National Park
This one day guide starts from the north entrance at I-40 Exit 311. If you want to start from the south entrance on US 180, then just do it in reverse.
- Scenic Drive
- Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark
- Painted Desert Rim Trail
- Puerco Pueblo
- Newspaper Rock
- Blue Mesa
- Agate Bridge
- Jasper Forest and Cyrstal Forest
- Rainbow Forest Museum and Giant Log Trail
Start your day at the Painted Desert Visitor Center. Make sure you have filled your gas tank and have lunch before heading into the park.
The north section of the park is dominated by the Painted Desert National Wilderness. The park road is located on the plateau above the desert. There are several overlooks to stop and enjoy the view.
Take a tour of the Painted Desert Inn. The Inn was built in the 1920’s using petrified wood with a 193-s renovation. The Inn is no longer open to overnight guests but the building is a museum about the history of the park, Route 66 and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Inn is also home to the famous Cat Petroglyph.
After the tour of the inn, head out along the Painted Desert Rim trail. This short 1-mile trail from the Painted Desert Inn to Tawa point. The trail has excellent views of the Painted Desert.
Keep following the park road and stop and enjoy Chinde Point and Picado Point. Enjoy stops at Nizhoni, Whipple, and Lacey Point before crossing over I-40.
Just before driving over 1-40, stop at the Route 66 exhibit. The exhibit covers the history of the route thru the park. Today the original road has been reclaimed by the desert but I-40 follows a similar route. There is a rusted out car at this site.
After you cross the train tracks, stop at Puerco Pueblo. There is a 0.3-mile walking loop thru a 100+ room ancestral Puebloan village. This village was occupied between 1250 – 1380 BCE.
Next stop is Newspaper Rock. This rock is covered with over 650 petroglyphs. I could spend hours looking at the rock. My personal favorite is the bird that looks like Kevin from the Disney Movie Up. The petroglyphs range in age but the oldest is 2000 years old.
Drive past the Tepees and take the turnoff to Blue Mesa road. Park at Blue Mesa and hike the 1-mile loop thru the grey, blue, and purplish badlands. Look closely at the area and you will see colorful species of petrified wood.
Head down to the Agate Bridge. This 110 ft petrified log spans a small gully. In truth, this log should have fallen into the gully long ago. In the early 1910’s, the park conservationists decided to add structural support to keep the log in place.
Nearby is the Jasper Forest. This region is one of the largest concentrations of petrified food in the park. Enjoy the view before heading south.
Stop at the Crystal Forest. Walk the 0.75-mile loop trail thru the area. As you get about half-way done with the trail. Stop and imagine what the area would look like if hundreds of tons of petrified wood weren’t removed from the area. The Crystal Forest looks nothing like the area described by early park visitors. It is unreal when you read those descriptions and look at the area.
The last stop in the park has two things to do. Start with the Rainbow Forest Museum. The Museum covers the ancient wildlife who roamed that Late Triassic forest. After the Museum head out to hike the 0.4-mile loop trail called Giant Logs Trail. The trail showcases some of the most colorful and largest logs including “Old Faithful” which is 10 feet across.
Long Logs and Agate House Trail – If you have extra time and want to do a bit more hiking, head out on the Long Logs and Agate House Trail. These two trails are separate trails. Long Logs is 1.6-mile loop while Agate House is a 2-mile round trip trail.
They can be combined for a 2.6-mile trail. Long Logs is a large area when something jammed a large collection of logs together. Agate House is a reconstructed seven-room pueblo.
How do you plan on spending your one day in Petrified Forest National Park?
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Jennifer has been obsessed with national parks as a child. This Tennessee native spent her childhood exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and traveling with her parents to National Parks and around the Caribbean. She is always planning her next adventure and is ready to see the world while trying to visit all 59 National Park (*She is ignoring the hunk of concrete that just became a national park).