Petrified Forest National Park, conveniently located next to Interstate 40 in Northern Arizona, can be explored in a couple of hours. It offers a scenic drive including a section of historic Route 66, the Painted Desert Inn and family-friendly hiking trails. Kids that love dinosaurs will love petrified wood. For those yearning for a landscape from an old western, the colorful mesas that dot the horizon as wide as the sky itself are a panoramic delight.
Petrified Forest National Park resides in a quiet corner of northern Arizona. Far away from the crushing crowds of Grand Canyon, I find serenity in the desert landscape. My kids love the novelty of petrified wood and dart down the hiking trails in the park. The best feature of Petrified Forest National Park is its convenient location, making it a perfect road trip stop to get out and stretch our legs.
Petrified Forest National Park
Over 200 million years ago, ancient Arizona was a rainforest where dinosaurs roamed and lush forests grew. As the continents moved and the climate changed, the rainforest slowly died off. The huge trees fell to the earth and slowly transformed into stone.
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 and in 1962, it became a national park.
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.
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.
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. In 1857 a wagon road was built from New Mexico to the Colorado River. 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 pull over to see the fabled route that enchanted a nation with the romance of cruising the open road.
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 the either the north or south entrance.
At each entrance there’s a visitor center, 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 (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) for a quick tour of the historic property. Drive along the park road and stop at the viewpoints along the route.
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.
Family-Friendly Hikes in Petrified Forest National Park
Stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum, several hikes originate in this area. The Giant Logs Trail is a .4-mile trail where I find 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 families 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.
Getting to Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is located along Interstate 40, 25 miles east of Holbrook, Arizona. There is a regional airport in Flagstaff, Arizona, 92 miles away. Grand Canyon National Park is 200 miles west.
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.
Getting Around Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is open every day except December 25. The park hours fluctuate during the year though winter hours (October 30 until February 20) are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; summer hours (May 29 until July 23) are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or you can use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80).
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- 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.