Petrified Forest National Park is the perfect road trip diversion. It’s not a trip destination by itself, but it’s a great stopover on the way to somewhere else. You’ll find it along Interstate 40 in northeastern Arizona between Flagstaff and Gallup, New Mexico.
Whether you’re westbound or eastbound, you can easily visit the park thanks to a triangle formed by I-40, US 180 and the park road. A three-hour visit is adequate for most people.
So why stop here?
The park contains an amazing concentration of petrified wood with several trails that let you get up close and personal. A bonus is a series of viewpoints overlooking the Painted Desert (see photo above for an example).
This isn’t spectacularly scenic country. It’s part of the Colorado Plateau, which here is a grassland broken by colorful badlands and watercourses that are dry most of the time. Those intermittent streams were vital to the formation of the petrified wood. Don’t look to me for the scientific explanation of how wood is transformed into stone, but I can give you an oversimplified one. The process worked something like this:
Fallen trees in the watercourses were buried from time to time (I’m talking geologic time) by volcanic ash. Groundwater dissolved the ash into silica, which formed quartz crystals that gradually replaced the organic matter in the downed trees. As a result, they look like wood, but they’re stone. The park road and several trails will lead you to the greatest concentrations of petrified wood. By the way, all the tree species are now extinct.
This is high desert country. The average elevation in the park is about 5,400 feet. It gets hot in summer and cold in winter. The wind blows constantly. The park gets about 800,000 visitors per year, most of whom arrive in summer. It’s never too crowded, and if you visit off-season, you’ll feel like you have the place pretty much to yourself – you and the ever-present wind.
Getting to the park
Here are directions: If you’re headed eastbound on I-40, take Exit 285 at Holbrook, then drive 19 miles southeast on US 180 to the park’s south entrance. After driving the 28-mile park road, you can rejoin I-40 near the visitor center. Headed west? Exit 311 from I-40 will take you right to the entrance station. The visitor center is just beyond the gate. Drive the park road, then turn right onto US 180 to Holbrook, where you reach the junction with I-40.
There are entrance stations are both ends of the park. The entry fee is $20 per car ($10 for motorcycles).
Petrified Forest is strictly a day use park. The nearest accommodations and other services are in Holbrook. If you’re eastbound, Gallup is an hour’s drive and Albuquerque about 3 ½ hours. If you’re westbound, you can push on to Flagstaff, which is about 2 hours away.
The park hours vary with the season. I recommend you check the park’s website for the schedule during your projected visit. It’s at www.nps.gov/pefo
The web site offers suggested itineraries for visits ranging from an hour to several days. Here are my recommendations for the most compelling stops along the park road. I’m going in order from north to south. Keep in mind that the greatest concentrations of petrified wood are near the south entrance.
Visitor center. Near the north entrance. The usual setup with an informative film and various displays. Also here are a café, gas station, and a gift shop where you can buy pieces of petrified wood, Route 66 souvenirs and other tchotchkes.
Painted Desert overlooks. There are several overlooks in the north portion of the park. Chinde Point is the most popular. Near Chinde Point is the beautiful pueblo-style Painted Desert Inn, which has more displays.
Blue Mesa. A short side road leads to a point overlooking a badlands area where petrified wood logs are strewn about. A one-mile trail leads down into the badlands. It’s a nice walk, but you can see and photograph the badlands and petrified wood deposits from the rim.
Crystal Forest trail. This ¾-mile trail leads past some especially colorful petrified wood deposits.
Giant logs trail. If you only take one trail, make it this one. It starts right behind the Rainbow Forest Museum. It’s .4 mile long and takes you past some of the largest petrified logs you can find anywhere.
Rainbow Museum. Similar to the visitor center, but with more extensive displays on the park’s petrified wood and other fossils.
Removing any petrified wood from the park is a big no-no, and the National Park Service takes this very seriously. If you want a souvenir chunk of petrified wood, you can buy it at one of the park gift shops or at a private business just past the south entrance. I bought one; it’s sitting in a box in my garage, along with my genuine Arizona Route 66 souvenir license plate. :>)
Last photo: Another view of the Painted Desert at sunset: