Petrified Forest National Park is an absolute hidden gem, located along historic Route 66 in the desert of northeastern Arizona. While it may have less dramatic landscapes than its national park siblings like Zion or Grand Teton, the scenery here is absolutely stunning, with vibrant badlands and rolling hills. Additionally, the various perspectives of the park, from the fascinating geology of petrified wood to the history of the Pueblo people, make it one of the most unique national parks I’ve ever visited.
If you plan on making a pitstop at the Petrified Forest National Park (good choice!), here’s everything you need to know about having an awesome day, from where to stay to the most photogenic spots in the park.
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Table of Contents
- What is Petrified Forest National Park?
- How to Get to Petrified Forest National Park
- When to Visit Petrified Forest National Park
- What to Pack for Petrified Forest National Park
- Where to Stay at Petrified Forest National Park
- How to Get Around Petrified Forest National Park
- The Perfect Petrified Forest National Park Itinerary for One Day
- Other Things to Do In and Near Petrified Forest National Park
What is Petrified Forest National Park?
If you haven’t really heard much about Petrified Forest National Park, you’re not alone (I hadn’t either before driving through the area!). Each year, it hovers around being the 30th most visited park in the National Park system- so while it’s still in the top half of the 63 National Parks in terms of most visitors, it’s nowhere near as popular as, say, Glacier or Yellowstone.
While the park has beautifully colored mesas and the gorgeous Painted Desert which you should absolutely explore, it’s named after the abundance of petrified wood (fossilized remains of trees from millions of years ago, that now have turned into rainbow colored quartz stones) you’ll find scattered across the ground in the park- in fact, it has one of the largest continuous sections of Triassic-aged rocks anywhere in the world!
As mentioned above, Petrified Forest has a little something for everybody- hiking through epic badlands and desert landscapes, the history and culture of ancient people, and it’s one of the only national parks that allows dogs on its trails!
Additionally, because the park is relatively small and most of the hiking trails are less than 2 miles long, this would be a great stop along a family road trip or for beginner hikers just getting their feet wet. So regardless of what kind of traveler you are, I’m confident you’ll find something to be awestruck by at Petrified Forest.
How to Get to Petrified Forest National Park
Unless you live within driving distance to Petrified Forest, your best option of reaching it is either flying intoFlagstaff Pulliam Airport (a 1 hour and 48 minute drive), Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (a 3 hour and 23 minute drive), or Albuquerque Airport (a 3 hour and 26 minute drive). To get the best deals on airfare (especially to off-the-beaten-path airports like Flagstaff), I swear by using Skyscanner!
You will also need to rent a car to get to and around the park (unlike some popular parks, Petrified Forest does not have a shuttle system)- I recommend booking cars as far in advance as possible to snag a great deal.
Petrified Forest is also a popular stop along road trips- it’s located along the iconic Route 66 (so it’s literally on the way from Flagstaff to Albuquerque or vice versa) and close to popular attractions in Arizona, like Sedona and the Grand Canyon. The Southwestern United States is the perfect place to go on an epic road trip- and Petrified Forest is a totally not-to-be-missed spot!
When to Visit Petrified Forest National Park
Summer (June, July, August, September) is the park’s busiest time, but it’s also considered the monsoon season. Almost every afternoon, there’s a short, but intense thunderstorm in the park- while this may put a brief damper on your explorations (and if you’re hiking, be aware of lightning danger), the wet colorful hills will look even more vibrant once the rain lets up.
Fall (October and November) may be the best time to visit- the park is less busy, there’s a much lower chance of precipitation, and the temperatures have cooled.
If you’re okay bundling up, the Petrified Forest can be one of the best places to visit in Arizona in the winter, given the lack of crowds. You should expect chilly weather and even the occasional snow flurry (December, January, and February).
Springtime has similar benefits to fall- wildflowers are blooming, the crowds are sparser as compared to the busy season, and temperatures are more pleasant.
What to Pack for Petrified Forest National Park
I trust that you have the toothbrush and socks part of your packing list sorted, but what kinds of odds and ends should you bring along to Petrified Forest National Park?
- Comfortable walking shoes: Although the hikes here are flat and fairly short (okay, they’re generally more “walks” than “hikes”), you should definitely be sure to pack sturdy and comfy walking shoes- you’ll be doing quite a bit of walking around the park!
Some comfy trail runners, like Topo ST-3 running shoes (which are readily packable and can easily be tossed in your carry on- here’s a pair for women and men), would be perfect for exploring the park’s trails.
- Layers: My husband, Justin, and I visited the park in mid-April and were surprised by how chilly it felt. Compared to the more arid parts of Arizona, the relative humidity here can be quite high, making cool temperatures feel downright freezing.
As such, I’d recommend bringing along some cozy layers to keep you warm, like this packable jacket from North Face for women or men (again, so perfect to just throw in your backpack).
- A cooler: There’s only one restaurant with limited hours on the north end of the park and snacks sold at two gift shops. If you’re feeling hungry, you could alternatively drive to the neighboring (and adorably kitschy) town of Holbrook, approximately half an hour away.
But with only one day in the park, that kind of seems like not the best use of time. Instead, if you’re road tripping to the park like we did, I’d highly recommend packing a cooler (we have one like this and use it all the time for road trips!) to keep in your car with some food to take with you on the trail to cut down on costs and wasted time.
- America the Beautiful Pass: For one car, it costs $25 for a one-week pass into the park. However, if you have plans to stop by a couple of U.S. National Parks within a year span, these fees are waived if you pick up an America the Beautiful Pass, an annual pass that costs just $80 and gets you into more than 2,000 U.S. national parks, forests, shorelines (and on and on).
The proceeds support the National Park Service and if you plan to go to at least three national parks per year (which usually cost around $30-$35 per car per visit), picking up one of these bad boys is a no brainer. You can either pick one up here, at REI, or at most staffed entrance stations at U.S. National Parks.
Obviously, if your adventures this year don’t include some National Park visits other than your trip to Petrified Forest, purchasing a pass probably doesn’t make a ton of financial sense. But otherwise, it’s seriously one of the best money saving “travel hacks” that I know!
Where to Stay at Petrified Forest National Park
There’s no formal accommodations within the park, so your best bet will be to stay in Holbrook. I so wish we had a bit more time to explore Holbrook- between the kitschy dinosaur statues everywhere and many businesses that look perpetually stuck in the 1950s (they are REALLY into Route 66 in Holbrook), it looked like a fun town to explore for a couple of days (and quite different from the quaint towns that usually neighbor the parks).
Consider staying at:
- 66 Motel: If you’re looking for a quick budget stay, this is a family-run Route 66 roadside motel from the 1950s. While the rooms may be a bit outdated, they’re clean and comfortable and the owners of the motel are super hospitable.
- Brad’s Desert Inn: If I was going to stay anywhere in Holbrook, it would be here, a classic Route 66 motel built in 1967 that’s been recently updated. The rooms, while simple, are clean and eclectically decorated in a Route 66-theme and the service here is unmatched.
- La Quinta Inn and Suites: While some towns near national parks have exploded with overpriced craft breweries and raw juice bars, Holbrook appears to be mostly untouched by such hipster enterprises- perhaps the best evidence of this fact is that this new La Quinta Inn is arguably the fanciest hotel in town!
Regardless of its bougie-ness factor (or lack thereof), this La Quinta offers clean, spacious rooms, free breakfast, and beautiful views of the mountains surrounding the city. If staying in slightly older motels does not sound like your jam (Route 66 be damned), La Quinta is your best option in town.
Alternatively, you can consider camping around the park. There’s a few options- Justin and I opted to stay in our RV at the Crystal Forest Gift Shop and Campground, which is mere feet from the entrance of the park and offers free camping (note that you need to be in a self-contained RV- you cannot car- or tent-camp here) or, if you’re in need of electric hookups, you can head literally across the street to the Petrified Forest Gift Shop and RV Park.
And while there are no established campgrounds in the park’s borders, you are allowed to backcountry camp in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area of the park, so long as you pick up a permit from the visitors center (check out my guide to backcountry camping here).
How to Get Around Petrified Forest National Park
As noted above, Petrified Forest does not offer a shuttle system, so you will need to drive your vehicle to get around. Alternatively, if you happen to have a bike with you, you’re welcome to pedal on the paved roads of the park.
The Perfect Petrified Forest National Park Itinerary for One Day
Before we dive into what you should do with your day in Petrified Forest National Park, a few things you should know:
- Almost all of Petrified Forest’s attractions are located along one road, cleverly named Petrified Forest Road, which runs from the north to the south of the park. So while it’s really challenging to hit the major attractions of most national parks in just a day, it’s actually achievable in Petrified Forest, given the proximity of the sites and the park’s relatively small size!
In this Petrified Forest National Park itinerary, I’m going to be starting from the south of the park (where our campsite was located) to the north. Holbrook is slightly closer to the park’s southern entrance than the northern entrance (approximately, an 8 minute shorter drive), but if you start from the north side of the park, obviously just flip this itinerary.
- Unlike most national parks, Petrified Forest is only open from 8 am to 5 pm. Technically, you’re allowed to stay in the park until 6:30 pm (so long as you enter the gate by 5 pm), but given the park’s operating hours, you unfortunately won’t be able to time your visit with sunrise or sunset for most of the year.
- You will be truly amazed at just how much petrified wood there is laying on the ground within the park. I know it’s neat to look at (and it’s okay to touch), but please follow the leave no trace principles and do not take any pieces of wood with you.
By leaving the wood where it is, not only are you being a good steward of our national parks and leaving them beautiful for future generations, but you may be avoiding a hefty fine! Removing any artifacts from the park, including petrified wood, comes with a minimum $325 fine. Nothing ruins a vacation quite like a multi-hundred dollar fine.
Moving on to the fun part- the perfect Petrified Forest National Park itinerary!
1. Rainbow Forest Museum
Stop in the Rainbow Forest Museum near the southern entrance of the park to learn about how petrified wood was created some 221 million years ago and about the dinosaurs and other creatures that roamed the park’s lands. The museum is small, but super informative and a great place to get acquainted with the area’s geology and history.
Once you know all things petrified wood, get up close and personal with it. There are two trails that leave from the museum’s parking lot- Giant Logs, a 0.5 mile loop trail that leads past, well, a lot of giant petrified wood logs or the Long Logs and Agate House, an easy 2.1 mile loop trail that leads past impressive logs and a reconstructed Pueblo house actually constructed out of petrified wood.
If you’re only up to do one of these trails, I’d recommend doing the Long Logs and Agate House hike– it’s less crowded, the trail is easier to follow, the logs are more spectacularly colored, and you get better views of the park’s interesting landscape. That being said, if you have limited time in the park, there are better hikes in the park to show off its petrified wood- so don’t feel too bad if you skip both.
2. Crystal Forest trail
Jump in your car and head 10 minutes north to the Crystal Forest trailhead, the zenith of all petrified wood hikes! This 0.9 mile mostly flat loop hike will take you past literally thousands of impressively sized and stunningly colored crystalized logs.
In my opinion, it’s the best trail in the park to be awed by the vibrancy and sheer volume of petrified wood here and unless you generally feel “meh” about that aspect of the park, it’s a not-to-be-missed hike.
3. Jasper Forest Overlook
Make the 4 minute drive north to Jasper Forest Overlook, which provides panoramic views of desert terrain, striped badlands, and a forest of petrified wood below.
This is usually just a quick stop for most travelers to take in the views, but if you’re interested in hiking through Jasper, there’s a 2.5 mile out-and-back trail along an abandoned road built in the 1930s. The road has all but completely washed away and is challenging to follow (the National Park Service has a guide to hike the trail, so you know the road is in pretty rough shape), so if you’re interested in trying this hike, make sure you know very basic navigational skills in case you get lost.
4. Blue Mesa Trail
Up next- probably the coolest hike in the park! Drive 15 minutes north to the Blue Mesa Trailhead, a one mile loop trail. This hike will take you down below the rim of a mesa, between the rolling badland hills of bluish bentonite clay.
Petrified wood is usually unearthed as these badland hills slowly erode- so not only can you see tons of smaller bits of petrified wood here, but if you look close enough, you can probably spot some wood that’s currently emerging from the clay of the badlands.
If you want to have the surreal experience of feeling like you’re walking on Venus, I can’t imagine a better hike than this.
5. The Teepees
As you drive north from the Blue Mesa, you’ll pass by The Teepees, conical badlands of seemingly perfectly striped reds, blues, and grays. Colored by iron, manganese, and other minerals, these stone formations date back to 225 million years ago!
There are a couple of pullouts to marvel at these beauties in all their glory and for you to snag that perfect photo.
6. Newspaper Rock
If you’re into history or anthropology, I’d suggest stopping next at Newspaper Rock, a three minute drive north of the Teepees. Rather than being one stone with inscriptions, Newspaper Rock is made up of several rockfaces, with over 650 petroglyphs. These petroglyphs were scrawled into the rocks by generations of Pueblo people living and working on this land between 650 and 2,000 years ago.
To preserve the rocks, you are only permitted to view them from an overlook quite a distance away, so it’s challenging to see the petroglyphs with your naked eye. There are several mounted binoculars to give you a better look at the petroglyphs, though (or you could bring your own binoculars), so, in my opinion, this is totally worth a quick stop.
7. Puerco Pueblo Trail
Next up is Puerco Pueblo, a short one minute drive north of Newspaper Rock. Puerco Pueblo is a quick 0.3 mile loop trail that leads you through the ruins of a pueblo (village) containing over 100 rooms that was inhabited by the ancestral Puebloan people over 600 years ago.
The site also has over 800 petroglyphs along the trail, which documents everything from the Pueblo people’s migration from the Puerco Pueblo to the Crack-in-the-Rock site, today located within the Wupatki National Monument to their tracking of the summer equinox.
8. Painted Desert
Finally, on to the grand finale- the Painted Desert! Technically, I believe most of the badlands of the park are considered part of the Painted Desert, but it seems like the park service has just branded the northernmost part of the Petrified Forest as such… let’s just go with it.
The Painted Desert spans approximately 146 square miles, consisting of colorful badlands and striated mesas of layers of mudstone, shale, and siltstone. There are several ways to explore the pink and scarlet hills here:
- Stop at the viewpoints along the way- Tiponi, Tawa, and Kachina Points overlooks have the best panoramic views.
- Hike the Painted Desert Rim Trail, a 1.1 mile flat out-and-back walk along the rim of the desert, providing spectacular views of seemingly endless badlands. The trailhead is next to the Painted Desert Inn, a beautiful old hotel built in the Pueblo Revival style.
- Right behind the Painted Desert Inn, you can follow a trail down under the rim and into the badlands themselves. Once you’re on the ground, there’s not an established trail and you’re free to explore the beautiful colorful mesas to your heart’s content. While Justin and I were visiting this area, we saw a girl hiking with her backcountry camping gear and I was instantly so jealous- waking up to these views would be beyond epic!
If you’re visiting during a time of year where this is possible, I’d recommend trying to hang out at the Painted Desert until sunset (keeping in mind that you have to be out of the park’s gates by 6:30 pm)- the golden light of the fading sun really makes the colors spring to life.
What about if you only have a few hours in the Petrified Forest? I’d prioritize going to:
- Crystal Forest (0.9 mile loop trail),
- Blue Mesa (1 mile loop), and
- Painted Desert Rim (1 mile out-and-back).
Other Things to Do In and Near Petrified Forest National Park
Have a bit more time around Petrified Forest National Park? Consider:
- Grabbing a beer at the Empty Pockets Saloon, which has an abundance of ol’ Wild West vibes and friendly locals.
- Digging for petrified wood at Dobell Ranch. Instead of breaking federal law and yoinking petrified wood from the national park, why don’t you dig some up yourself at Dobell Ranch? This family-run establishment appears to be the only place in town that lets you go on your own excavating expedition- perfect for a family outing or a unique afternoon activity.
- Picking up a kitschy Route 66 souvenir at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post. This souvenir shop, dating back to the 1940s, has become almost iconic with respect to Route 66 history, in part, due to an enormous fiberglass rabbit in front of the store that you can mount (it takes all kinds, folks).
In fact, it’s so ingrained in Route 66 folklore that the store was featured in the Pixar movie, Cars. Stop in to peruse the small museum of memorabilia, pick up a souvenir, and engross yourself in Americana.
Petrified Forest is seriously so underrated and I hope you enjoy this hidden gem (or should I say, hidden crystal? I’ll be here all week, folks) as much as I did. What did you think of Petrified Forest? Let me know in the comments below!