The Great American Road Trip is a longstanding summer tradition. Many would say the advent of the road trip began when Route 66 opened up the wonders of the west to the common traveler – beginning in 1926 and hitting its heyday during the ‘50s. One of the many stops that fascinated the travelers of the “Mother Road” was the Petrified Forest, which is the only National Park that Route 66 actually runs through. Although Route 66 was decommissioned in 1984, its legacy is still felt in the hyped up “world famous” attractions, ‘50s era diners, and countless overloaded family vans that take off on western road trips every summer. And in our opinion, there is no better road trip stop than the Petrified Forest.
As we observed our fellow park visitors, it appeared that for many the park was not exactly a destination, but one stop in their long road trip itinerary. Petrified Forest National Park is one of the 8 or so National Parks I had previously visited before Elizabeth and I took off on our trip to visit all 59 National Parks in one year. When my family stopped in on a vacation, it was also a piece of a big road trip ending with the Grand Canyon (only 3 hrs away), as I’m sure is the case with many other families.
However, the park itself seems to graciously welcome all visitors and accommodate all lengths of stay. So I think 4 characteristics of the park make it the perfect stop for any road trip.
- Super easy access to the park, since it is actually divided in half by I-40
- Road that drives the length of the park is just 28 miles and lets out on each end to highway.
- Dozens of little stops along the main allow for anything from a 5-minute stop at an overlook to a 4-hour off-trail trek. But most points can be fully experienced in under 30 minutes.
- Although many stops in the area claim to have world famous something or other (we saw the World Famous Jack Rabbit advertised on our way out), the Petrified Forest is actually world famous. It has by far the largest concentration of petrified wood of anywhere on the planet.
Some may think to themselves, “It’s a park with a bunch of petrified wood, once you’ve seen one piece you’ve seen them all.” From our greatly varied experience in the park, we would energetically argue against this perception. So we want to lay out our 3-day visit to the park by ranking all those different stops we hit, and hopefully in doing so we will show that the Petrified Forest deserves more time in your road trip itinerary than you may think. Then at the bottom we will throw out some tips for your visit and maybe even a few fun facts.
1- Wilderness Trek into the Painted Desert – This was my favorite thing we did and Elizabeth’s second favorite. The whole northern section of the park is Painted Desert wilderness. You can view it from a half dozen overlooks along the road, but that doesn’t really compare to getting down and exploring. From the Painted Desert Inn there is Wilderness Access Trail that takes you down from the mesa top with all the buildings and overlooks about half a mile into the Painted Desert. At that point there are no more trails and you are free to wander the desert to your hearts content (or maybe just until your water runs out). We hiked through the Black Forest (named for the more black-colored petrified wood strewn all around you) and navigated with our map to the Onyx Bridge about 2 miles away. Normally the petrified logs are exposed from the sandstone and break into shorter chunks from their own weight. But this rare feature had an in tact log that spanned a wash (creek) to form what looked like a bridge. From there we climbed one of the hills to watch a beautiful sunset before hiking back to the place we dropped our backpack to set up camp in the dark. Just like Great Sand Dunes, we had the wilderness all to ourselves and the full moon made the night seem incredibly peaceful (and I didn’t get scared once ;))
2- Off-trail Hike at Jasper Forest – This was our first stop in the park and it turned out to be Elizabeth’s favorite. From the Jasper Forest overlook in the middle of the park we used our map from the Visitor Center to identify a small, unmarked trail that quickly became a non-existent, unmarked trail as we walked out among the thousands of chunks of petrified wood. The wood here was much more colorful than in the Painted Desert with reds, yellow, oranges, whites and even blues (due to the iron manganese and other chemical stuff that got into it when it petrified). I’m sure we looked like wandering fools to the people who cycled through the overlook above because we lost the route for a while. Eventually we used the map to make our way to the destination, a feature called Eagle Nest Rock that toppled in 1941. But walking through the huge chunks of petrified wood everywhere during the 2.5-mile hike was the real reward.
3- Paved-Trail Hike at Blue Mesa – Our favorite part of this short 1-mile hike was not the petrified wood that was still everywhere, but rather the badlands landscape. On this trail you walked down a short, steep stretch from Blue Mesa into the eroded, layered, and multi-colored rock formations to get a closeup view. The way the water carved gullies and ridges into the soft rock layers was both otherworldly and entrancing. We also used our Visitor Center map to take another off-trail hike around the top of the Blue Mesa to Billings Gap Overlook. This had more great views of a larger area of the badlands.
4 – Painted Desert Inn Ranger Tour – During the heat of the desert day we retreated to Painted Desert Inn for the ranger program that gave a short tour of the inn and talk about its history. The story of the southwestern style building that was remodeled by famous regional architect Mary Colter was super interesting. It was originally built partly from petrified wood and used as a stop where train-ride-weary travelers could stop and maybe get their booze on during Prohibition. Eventually the NPS took over and it became a National Landmark before the Fred Harvey company took over management and it became a lunch joint for Route 66 travelers. When we were there, we were just thankful we could get some shade. We also had a great chat with a geologist who was volunteering at the park and his wife who is the Artist-in-Residence at the park for 2 weeks.
5 – Long Logs and Agate House Trails – These two spots are along the same paved path at the south entrance and were just 2.6 miles total. It was about equally cool to see a old Pueblo dwelling made entirely out of petrified wood and then the long, intact trunks of petrified wood.
6 – Giant Logs Trail and Rainbow Forest Museum – This stop would be great for younger kids especially. The .6-mile paved walk gets you up close with huge pieces of multi-colored petrified wood, thus the name Rainbow Forest. Then the museum has displays of the many dinosaur fossils that have been found in the park.
7 – Crystal Forest, Newspaper Rock and Puerto Pueblo – All these stops were in the middle of the park and took under 30 minutes. Definitely worth doing, just not our favorites. Crystal Forest is a .75 paved loop that goes past huge pieces of petrified wood with a higher concentration of crystals in them (if you’ve noticed, the names don’t really go out on a limb). Newspaper Rock is really interesting because it has over 600 different petroglyphs covering just 3 different rock faces. It’s basically just 100ft from the parking lot to the overlook where you use the telescopes to view them. Puerto Pueblo is a .4-mile paved loop that shows off the ruins of a 100-room Ancient Puebloan village. Unfortunately, just coming from Mesa Verde we were spoiled by all those ruins.
You can probably tell that with so many different stops of different lengths you can really create an itinerary to fit any amount of time and level of ability.
But when you are creating that perfect itinerary, we encourage you to keep in mind these tips:
- Avoid the heat of the day – Because we were pretty slow getting out of the Holbrook KOA campground where we stayed the first two nights, we were hiking deeper into the afternoon than we would have liked before breaking for lunch. The sun seemed to really zap our energy. The first day we toured the museum during the middle of the afternoon and actually went into the dark auditorium with the A/C to watch the intro video for a second and third time because we needed a comfy break.
- Enter and exit the park strategically – We wanted to go to the Visitor Center first so we came into the North entrance. Then we decided to go south to do all those short little stops instead of sticking north like originally planned. Plus, we found later that the best intro info to the park was at the museum in the south entrance. So our route was pretty inefficient.
- Get maps for “Off the Beaten Path” Trails – As described above, we did all 7 of the established trails at Petrified Forest, but our favorite hikes were the ones that only had a map and a “suggested route” for a given destination. These routes did not have any signs at the trailheads and any trodden path quickly disappeared, so using the map was crucial. You can either print the map off the NPS website or do what we did and just ask the ranger at the Visitor Center for all of them.
Over our 3 days at Petrified Forest I felt like we covered almost all the main sites, even though there was still plenty of the backcountry we could explore. But even if you only have 3 hours, Petrified Forest National Park would be a great addition to your road trip as it has for so many others since the 1800s.