Even though it’s among the smallest national parks in the United States, that doesn’t mean Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona isn’t interesting. Rather the contrary; it’s one of America’s most remarkable places. In this post, I’ll provide an itinerary for 2 days in Petrified Forest National Park, which is plenty of time to get to know this extraordinary area.
The headquarters of the park lies along Interstate 40, which parallels historic Route 66. It lies about 26 miles east of the town of Holbrook and 58 miles to the east of Winslow, Arizona (made famous in the Eagles song ‘Take It Easy’).
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona: Badlands Country
In this fascinating national park, perfectly petrified trees lie in abundance in a wind-beaten desert landscape. You’ll be able to marvel at unique scenery of wide valleys straddled by breathtaking badlands. The variety of colors of this landscape is mind-blowing.
Petrified Forest’s fossilized trees date back 225 million years. Carried to a floodplain by rivers, the trees were buried by volcanic ash rich in silica. Water dissolved that silica and seeped into the trunks. Over time, the water crystallized, effectively turning the trees into rocks made up of quartz, manganese, other colorful minerals and even crystal.
Visitor facilities within Petrified Forest National Park consist of the Painted Desert Visitor Center, the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark and the Rainbow Forest Museum. There is no accommodation in the park—not even campgrounds.
Camping and Directions
You can, in fact, camp, though. Backcountry camping permits are free and must be obtained at one of the three above-mentioned visitor facilities. Backcountry camping is allowed in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area, at least a one-mile hike from two designated parking lots. I strongly recommend going backcountry camping during your 2 days in Petrified Forest National Park. There really isn’t anything like pitching your tent in the desert wilderness, enjoying a sunset and sunrise. (If you’d like some more luxury, however, there are actual campgrounds and motels outside the park.)
In this itinerary for two days in Petrified National Park, we’ll enter the park at its northern entrance, the Petrified Forest Visitor Center, along I-40. We’ll then continue southward through the park, eventually exiting just past the Rainbow Forest Museum onto Route 180. To avoid having to backtrack, this is the way to go if you’re coming from the east. If you’re coming from the west, simply reverse this itinerary.
Day 1: Painted Desert
Depending on how far your drive is on the first of your two days in Petrified Forest National Park, you might arrive there around noon or even later. That’s okay, that’s still plenty of time to explore the park.
Having entered the park in its northern section, the first sights you’ll see are the Painted Desert landscapes. Before anything else, however, I recommend visiting the park’s visitor center, where you can get a backcountry camping permit and watch an interesting park film.
Spend the rest of the day exploring the northern part of the park. Along the road, you’ll find several great lookout points offering vistas of the Painted Desert. Suggested ones are Kachina Point, Chinde Point and Tawa Point. Definitely don’t skip the 1-mile Painted Desert Rim Trail that runs between Tawa and Kachina Points. This gravel trail snakes its way through rim woodlands and provides spectacular views of the Painted Desert.
In the afternoon, set aside some time to visit the Painted Desert Inn. Although this historic inn doesn’t offer accommodation anymore, you can still learn about its history. Inside, exhibits highlight the Civilian Conservation Corps, the building’s architecture and history, and Route 66. (Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park in the United States that’s home to a section of the Mother Road.)
Well before the sun sets, park your rental car at Kachina Point for an overnight backpack into the park’s wilderness. Once you’re more than a mile from the trailhead, you can pitch your tent anywhere you want. Settle in for a spectacular desert sunset, filling dinner and phenomenal night sky.
Day 2: Petroglyphs and Crystal Forest
The next morning, enjoy a brilliant sunrise, pack up camp and hike back to your car. Today, the last of your two days in Petrified Forest National Park, you’re driving the park’s only road. This 26-mile scenic road winds through a superb landscape littered with petrified trees. Numerous spur trails and pull-offs line the road, offering plenty of opportunities for exploring.
The first stop presents itself soon. At Puerco Pueblo, you can hike a very short 0.3-mile loop through the remains of a 100-room pueblo. This old building was occupied by Puebloan people more than 600 years ago. Along the southern end of the trail, you can see petroglyphs. Just past Puerco Pueblo, you can see more, and much older, petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock.
Up next are The Tepees, a collection of striking color-layered hills. A short distance further on lies one of the park’s main attractions—Blue Mesa. Drive the Blue Mesa Loop Road for amazing views of these uniquely colorful badlands. Definitely make sure to hike the 1-mile Blue Mesa Loop Trail. Keep your eyes peeled for fossils embedded in rocks along the trail.
Passing Agate Bridge and Jasper Forest, both sites featuring petrified trees, you’ll get to Crystal Forest, yet another highlight in Petrified Forest National Park. The rocky plain that now makes up this “forest” is littered with petrified logs, many of which contain glittering crystals. Explore this area on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest Trail.
After all these attractions, you’ll eventually reach the Rainbow Forest Museum. Make sure to go inside and check out its paleontological displays and phytosaur diorama. Hit the short Giant Logs Trail just outside the museum to see the park’s largest petrified tree. Before leaving the national park, take your time hiking the combined Long Logs and Agate House Trails. This 2.6-mile roundtrip leads you through one of the park’s largest concentrations of petrified wood and past an ancient pueblo built with petrified logs.
After a fantastic two days in Petrified Forest National Park, exit it at the southern entrance station just onto Route 180.
Tickle Your Sense of Curiosity With These Great Photos