Petrified National Forest – A Look Into Arizona’s Past
A part of the past can be viewed when visiting the Petrified National Forest in the northeast portion of Arizona. Stepping into this “forest” is an experience you won’t have anywhere else. Don’t expect to see standing living trees. Rather you will encounter fossilized trees that were alive over 200 million years ago, but now are rock like.
The Petrified Forest National Park also includes part of the Painted Desert that expands all the way to the Grand Canyon. Personally, I think this Park is underrated. Indeed this a great opportunity since it can be less crowded than the busier Grand Canyon National Park.
So, check out our guide to the Petrified National Forest in Arizona and discover why so many people come to see the colorful and dramatic landscape that makes up this park.
What To Expect
Exploring the Petrified National Forest will take you on a 27 mile journey throughout a changing terrain. I think it’s a remarkable place to see how Mother Nature can create a unique landscape out of the remains of what used to be. Depending on the entrance you enter, you will either begin or end with the Painted Desert. Another spectacular place to discover how time has created vibrant colorful buttes and hills.
Entering the northern entrance will take you straight into the Painted Desert. Go check out the visitors center to learn about how the alternating colors of grays, lavenders, pinks, oranges, and reds came to be in the layered clay and sandstone hills.
Within a few minutes you will see the historical Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark. Over 100 years old, it’s a great building to learn about the history or grab a book on the area. Sadly, no it is not an inn you can stay at, but it has some great views.
The southern entrance is where you will enter into the Petrified Forest, which will take up most of your time in the park. With over 20 places to stop at a overlook or get out and hike a trail, there’s more than enough options to choose from on what to invest your time in. Do not be confused in thinking that the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert are two different parks. On the contrary, they are in fact only 1 park and will be listed under the Petrified Forest National Park.
How Where They Formed
Imagine over 225 million years ago there was a large forest with conifer like trees that stretched from Utah to Texas. Over time, floods uprooted some of the trees and washed them into an ancient river system. While in the river, they eventually settled at the bottom or in a log jam. Over a short time they were then buried under sediments, which depleted the oxygen content. Without oxygen present, organic matter had the break down of its structure slowed drastically.
Water has an amazing affect on most things in life. It can create and destroy. Not only did it remove the trees and change the landscape, but it also allowed for dissolved minerals to seep into the wood over time.
For example, some of the minerals like silica from volcanic ash made its was through the small pours in the wood. Once there, they crystallized within the cellular wood structure, which is called Petrification. Over time the organic wood material was replaced with crystals. Such as the smoky quartz, clear quartz, yellow citrine, and purple amethyst crystals.
Time once again came into play to uncover the now rock like logs. Gradual uplifting happened as well from the Colorado Plateau over 60 million years ago. This created so much pressure on the logs that some ended up cracking with clean fractures. For the nerds out there, the petrified wood pieces are considered a 7.8 hard on the 1 – 10 Mohs Hardness Scale, yet can be brittle.
What Should I See
1. Giant Logs
Next to the Rainbow Forest Museum, the Giant Logs offers a self-guide trail. You can go at your own pace or direction in viewing the pieces. Some amazing large pieces can be seen here that are easily longer than a car. Clearly some of the trees were over 130 feet high at least and could have been as big as 200 feet tall.
As revealed by prior studies, some of the type of trees that were found to be fossilized were a few types of coniferous trees like the Araucaria conifer trees, tree ferns and ginkgoes trees are a few examples. Try to imagine a continuous expanding forest with trees over 100 feet tall in a lush environment when you go visit the Petrified National Forest.
2. Crystal Forest
It is due to the Crystal Forest that the place became a park many years ago. Within the logs were beautiful amethyst and quartz crystals. Of course this attracted people who wanted to blow up the logs to retrieve the crystals. This was one of the reasons why they decided on making this area into a park to protect what was left.
Only a 0.75 mile loop trail awaits you and the best part is it is paved so most people can walk it. Undoubtedly the best time to see the crystals shine is early morning or late afternoon on a sunny day. You will find a good collection of fossilized wood pieces here.
A ancient river bed used to be present in this area. The logs would eventually accumulate on the bottom and create log jams. For this reason, the area has a higher concentration of larger logs.
3. Blue Mesa Trail
A truly inspiring place to walk is the Blue Mesa Trail. A 1 mile hike will take you through the rolling hills with the purple, grey, and blue hues. The trail has no shade so it can be hot during the summer. A few places of the trail are steeper and when its winter, the shady areas can have ice on them. Be careful if you are visiting during this time, a good grip on your shoe is important. I’d say that this is definitely a trail not to miss!
4. Newspaper Rock
An odd name since there is not one single rock or one that looks like a newspaper. Instead, what you will find is over 650 petroglyphs that have been carved into the rocks between 2,000 and 650 years ago by the ancestral Puebloan people.
To protect the rocks and due to unstable conditions of the hillsides, you will not be able to get very close to them. Expect to use the overlooks or the free scopes to see a more up close view.
Now, do not confuse Petroglyphs with Pictographs. With petroglyphs, you will see carvings in the rocks due to the lighter surface underneath being enhanced with the darker color on the outside surface of the rock. Weather will slowly destroy them over time, but they will last longer than pictographs. Pictographs are art paintings on the rock surface with the use of ground up minerals, blood, or other elements that could be used to draw with.
5. Route 66
Okay, so a very quick stop between the Petrified Forest and the beginning of the Painted desert is a spot for Route 66. What is even better is they have an old rusted 1932 Studebaker car as a monument to the history of this famous route. Perfect for a quick photo or just to take a moment and admire how far humans have come in so little time.
6. Chinde Point
Traveling through the Painted Desert you will see they have 8 scenic vista points to stop at. At Chinde Point you can not only view the different colors of the painted desert but also enjoy a picnic on one of the sheltered tables. Need a bathroom, then make sure to use one here, since there are not very many throughout the park.
A cool fact is in 1984 they discovered Chindesaurus Bryansmalli dinosaur fossils close by. A small dinosaur from the Late Triassic Period from 235 to 210 million years ago.
7. Tawa Point
Finally, there’s Tawa Point in the Painted Desert which will either be your last stop or for those entering the northern entrance will be your first. I believe you should definitely stop here and check out this point.
The Painted Desert Rim Trail, a 1 mile roundtrip walk awaits you from this point. As you stroll along the trail, you will be presented with views of the multicolored desert hills and finally understand how they got its name.
Best Time To Visit
The best time to visit in my opinion is when the wildflowers are blooming during the months of May, July and August. Although the downside of July and August is that they fall in the summer months, when the park has the most visitors. If these are the only months you can see the Petrified National Forest, then start your day off early. This will give you extra time to explore the park and hopefully avoid some of the traffic.
Try to shoot for May, since it will be before the summer crowds. The weather will be comfortable, and you won’t have to deal with too much traffic. Driving in from the west, then make sure to start at the Rainbow Forest side, from Holbrook.
Other great times are during the fall or winter months, when the park will have the least amount of people. Certainly expect an increase in tourist on holidays. Visiting during the colder months, then make sure to have layers. Again, I can’t stress this enough for visitors, but the temperatures can drop drastic and it can get windy, so always come prepared with proper layers.
Camping and Accommodations
The park has no campground or places you can park your RV’s for overnight. What they do offer is backcountry camping with a permit. Great thing is the permit is free and as long as your pet is leashed then they can come too. Obtain your permit in person from either the Rainbow Forest Museum or the Painted Desert Visitor Center. Maximum number of individuals for a group is 8. Of course, this is due to wanting to keep their fragile ecosystem intact with limiting how many people can be in a certain area.
Furthermore, it is important to remember, whatever you pack in, must be packed out as well. Unlike other camping adventures, you cannot have a wood or charcoal fire, so that only leaves you able to use a fuel stove. For this reason you need to make sure to plan out your trek beforehand and do not forget the water!
In addition, for those that wish to camp close, there are a few sites you can choose. For instance, for National Parks, you can try Canyon de Chelly or El Morro National Monument Campground, which is free and on a first come basis. Additionally, you can camp at Homolovi Arizona State Park. Finally, the south entrance has two private owned gift shops who allows Rv overnight parking if you just need a quick place to stop for a bit.
What To Bring
- Hiking or Trail Shoes with a good grip if you plan to hike.
- Layered Cloths are a smart move since the temperatures can change of upwards to 30°F within a few hours, which can be expected of a desert environment.
- Sunglasses and Hat/Beanie
- Water Bottles or filled Hyrdoflask
- Camera/GoPro/Phone for pictures or videos.
- Snacks since your only options for food are the gift shops at each end or the small cafe, which is found at the northeast end of the park, off of exit 311.
Your Questions Answered
1. Is the Petrified National Forest pet friendly?
Yes, they are a great park to bring your leashed pets. In fact, they are allowed on any trail, overnight camping, or any other spots, except any buildings. Clearly, the only exception would be service animals.
2. How long of a drive will it be to go through the park?
Without stopping and driving the normal speed limit of 25 – 35 mph should take about a little over an hour for you to go from one end to the other. Honestly, you should try to allocate half a day or more to explore the park. Just driving through only gives you a small glimpse of the petrified wood, which in my opinion needs to be viewed up close.
3. What areas should I focus on if I do not have very much time?
If you have a time crunch, then it is possible to drive through and see a few of the important spots within 3 hours or less. Best bet if you have a limited amount of time is to start from the south entrance, by Rainbow Forest Museum with the Giant Logs self-guided trail. Next, head to the Blue Mesa area, which was an amazing sight to see with the different color layers of blues in the hills and the pieces of petrified wood littered as you walk the trail. At Newspaper Rock you will see petroglyphs. Lastly, as you head out, you will be privileged to see the beauty of the Painted Desert.
4. Where is the best spots for sunset?
The Rainbow Forest are with the Giant Logs is perfect if you want to see the multi-colors in the petrified wood. Another option is the Painted Desert area where you can see the layered colors come alive.
5. The gate closes at 5 p.m., dose that mean I have to leave before then and the gates will close on me?
You will not be able to enter the park after 5 p.m., but you can still leave when you wish to. Just drive up to the closed gate and it will open for you, but do not back up or you will shred those tires.
6. Can you take pieces of petrified wood with you?
No you can not pick up pieces in the park and take them with you, but the gift shops and other stores along Route 41 will sell petrified wood pieces that you can buy legally.
7. How much is stolen each year?
Each year, they estimate about 12 tons of petrified wood is taken by visitors who, “just wanted a souvenir”, but instead are damaging the park and depleting what is left. Please do not take any from the Petrified National Forest, instead got to a gift shop and buy some pieces, since most of these come from private land owners and not the park itself.
8. What are the consequences of getting caught with petrified wood?
If you are caught removing any pieces or damaging them, then you can be subject to a fine starting at $325.
9. Can you use drones in the Petrified National Park?
In August of 2014, the National Parks Service made it illegal to operate any drones or unmanned aircraft in any National Parks. Getting caught flying one in a National Park can get you 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
10. Are there any gift shops and where are they located?
The park has a gift shop at each entrance, but the one by exit 311 is bigger in my opinion and they have more amenities available.
11. Is the park handicapped accessible?
Certain outlooks and trails are paved and can be used, but check beforehand since some of the paved trails have steep grades.
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Have you visited the Petrified National Forest in Northern Arizona? Did you enjoy yourself and is there anything you would recommend? Have any other activities or places we should see, let us know in the comments section. From Phoenix? Hi neighbor! Thanks for taking a look at our site and don’t forget to subscribe for future articles and tips.