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As you travel across the desert southwest, you’ll find Petrified Forest National Park in northeastern Arizona. It’s conveniently located along Interstate 40 and can be explored in an hour. It’s a great add-on to your Grand Canyon or Utah road trip itineraries. With a scenic drive with overlooks and easy hiking trails, it offers a lot for road trippers who need to get out and stretch their legs.
As a road tripping veteran, I’m always looking for a quick and interesting stop on drive days. There’s only so many times you can stop at McRestrooms. Petrified Forest National Park was the perfect stop on my trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. I found clean restrooms, a visitor center, an interesting one-way drive through the park and a few quick hikes to stretch my legs and breath some fresh air. It’s great for kids and dogs on leashes too.
Petrified Forest National Park
Photo credit: NPS/Stuart HolmesOver 200 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed and lush forests grew in ancient Arizona. It was a rainforest. Then the continents moved and the climate changed. Slowly the rainforest died off. The huge trees fell to the earth and volcanic ash buried the logs. Silica rich groundwater slowly transformed the wood into petrified logs.
For over 10,000 years, people have moved through this area. It was the Puebloans who added the petroglyphs and pictographs. In the late 1800s, visitors started collecting the petrified wood and threatened the unique landscape of Petrified Forest.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Petrified Forest National Monument, before there was a National Park Service. Then in 1962, it became a national park. To this day, paleontologists study this area.
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What to Do in 2 Hours
If you are short on time, drive through Petrified Forest National Park. With its 28 miles of paved park roads, it’s a convenient one-way drive through the park. You can start at either the north or south entrances.
At each entrance you’ll find a visitor center with a gift shop: Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north end of the park and the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south end. Inside of each, there’s an interpretive area along with an introductory movie; outside there are marked trails, great for families with small children.
Stop at the Painted Desert Inn (closed in 2021 for renovation) for a quick tour of the historic property. Drive along the park road and stop at the overlooks along the route.
Top Sites to See in Petrified Forest
Visitors can see these sites along the Scenic Drive:
- Painted Desert Inn
- Route 66
- Puerco Pueblo
- Newspaper Rock
- The Tepees
- Blue Mesa
- Agate Bridge
- Crystal Forest
- Giant Logs
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The Painted Desert Inn
The Painted Desert Inn has been a part of the park’s landscape since the original building was built in the 1920s. Originally constructed of petrified wood and native stone, it was redesigned by a park ranger, Lyle Bennett, in the Pueblo Revival Style in the 1930s.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) added stucco masonry walls, flat roofs and viga beams made from ponderosa pine and aspen poles from nearby forests. The light fixtures of hand-punched tin were made by the CCC as well.
Since the Painted Desert Inn is along the fabled Route 66, it provided travelers with meals, American Indian arts and crafts and lodging until the start of World War II. It closed for five years during the war along with the majority of the National Park sites.
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The Fred Harvey Company arrived in the 1940s to freshen up the Painted Desert Inn. Mary Colter, the lead architect for Fred Harvey, oversaw the renovations and added a new color scheme. By this time, Colter was well-known for her work from the nearby Grand Canyon Village.
The Fred Harvey Company brought the Harvey Girls to the Painted Desert Inn, who served customers with their hallmark efficiency from the 1940s until the 1950s. The Painted Desert Inn became a National Historic Landmark in 1987 after escaping demolition.
The Painted Desert Visitor Centers are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; however, while renovations are ongoing in 2021, they will be temporarily relocated. Check the website for the latest information.
Drive Down Route 66
As America grew so did the need for roads. In 1853, Congress authorized a study to find a rail route between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. Then in 1857 a wagon road was built from New Mexico to the Colorado River. Finally in 1926 Route 66 opened, one of the original highways in the U. S. Highway System.
The Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park to protect a portion of Route 66. Near the Painted Desert Visitor Center, I pulled over to see the fabled route that enchanted a nation with the romance of cruising the open road. Note, you can’t drive on this section of Route 66.
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Family-Friendly Hikes in Petrified Forest National Park
Stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum. Several hiking trails originate in this area. The Giant Logs Trail is a .4-mile trail where I found Old Faithful, a petrified tree that’s ten feet wide at its base. This trail is not suitable for strollers since there are several sets of stairs.
For family hikers who want a longer hike, try the Long Logs Trail, a 1.6-mile loop, or the Agate House Trail, a 2-mile round trip hike. Both trails originate at the Rainbow Forest Museum parking lot and can be combined for a 2.6-mile hike.
The Puerco Pueblo Trail is a .3-mile hike that’s stroller-friendly about half-way between the entrances. On this trail, there are petroglyphs, or rock carvings.
Kids at Petrified Forest National Park
This is a great road trip stop for the family while driving through northern Arizona. There are picnic tables and restrooms at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, Painted Desert Inn, Chinde Point and the Rainbow Forest Museum.
Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at either the Painted Desert Visitor Center or the Rainbow Forest Museum and turn them in at the other end of the park. This Junior Ranger booklet doesn’t require attending a ranger program and can be completed within an hour or two while exploring the park.
Petried Forest is horse-friendly and dog-friendly. You might even see Park Rangers on the NPS horses. If you want to bring your horses, horseback riding is permitted in the Painted Desert Wilderness Area, two miles north of Painted Desert area of the park. In this area, find trailer parking.
TravelingMom Tip: There isn’t water in the wilderness area so pack in your own. Horses aren’t allowed on roads or developed areas.
Where’s Petrified Forest National Park?
Petrified Forest National Park is located along Interstate 40, 25 miles east of Holbrook, Arizona. Find a regional airport in Flagstaff, Arizona, 92 miles away and Grand Canyon National Park is 200 miles west. Phoenix is 200 miles southwest of the park.
With two entrances, you can drive one way through the park. If you are traveling along Interstate 40 eastbound, enter Petrified Forest National Park from the south entrance. At Holbrook, Arizona, take exits 285 or 286, the Petrified Forest National Park entrance is 21 miles south along Highway 180. Drive north through the park and re-enter I-40 at the exit 311.
For westbound travel, exit I-40 at exit 311 and drive south through the park and exit through the south entrance. Drive 21 miles to Holbrook, Arizona, where you can re-enter I-40.
Petrified Forest National Park is open every day except December 25. The park hours fluctuate during the year though the main hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or you can use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80).
Tips from a TravelingMom:
- Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time. It’s on Mountain Standard Time year-round.
- Petrified Forest National Park doesn’t have a campground. Lodging is available in Holbrook, Arizona, 21 miles away.
- Backcountry camping is permitted. Register at either entrance for a free permit.
- Collecting fossils, plants or artifacts within National Park sites is prohibited.
- Stay on marked trails or paths.
- Drones are not permitted at any NPS location.
- Bring food and refillable water bottles for your visit. Food service can be limited.
- Carry extra water year-round.
- Temperatures can reach over 100F in the summer.