The Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert is somewhere I had been wanting to visit for a very long time. This is an extremely vast national park, where you must drive from point to point (hiking along the road is technically possible, but not something I’d personally recommend, especially during summer). It’s open daily from 8am to 5pm (only closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas) and costs $25 per car to enter. It’s a bit pricey, but you really can spend all day and well into the night here if you choose. Pets are allowed, but they must remain on a 6″ or shorter leash at all times. Per the National Park’s Service website, “Pet owners are responsible for cleaning-up any solid waste left behind from their pet. As the summer heat intensifies, please carry plenty of water and safeguard your pet’s feet, as the ground becomes very hot”.
The park resides within the Painted Desert, which is a badlands desert that stretches from the east end of the Grand Canyon to the southeast end of the Petrified Forest, an area of approximately 205 miles. (Fyi, you can catch wonderful glimpses of this desert (for free) by taking Highway 89 from the Grand Canyon to Page, Arizona).
The park stretches north to south between I-40 and Highway 180, covering about 346 square miles (900 square kilometers). There are two entrances depending on which direction you come from, one to the north and one to the south. It’s really not difficult to find, as the north entrance sits literally right off of Interstate 40 (you even have to pass under the interstate while driving along the highway inside the park). Here is a link to the National Parks Service website that gives detailed directions by car and even plane: https://www.nps.gov/pefo/planyourvisit/directions.htm.
Located in Navajo and Apache counties in NE Arizona, it’s an enormous, fascinating area, rich in Native American culture and history, with evidence of people dating as far back as 12,000 years ago. They’ve found evidence of early nomadic groups in the area from between 8,000 BCE and 1,000 BCE.
For whatever reason, there were very few visitors, at least compared to other National Parks, Monuments, and Forest’s I’ve visited. I’m not sure if this is due to its location, the time of year or day (we visited around 11am in early March), or if it’s just not as popular as other places. To put it into perspective, on average, the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert sees approximately 800,000 visitors per year, while Yosemite sees around 2.27 million and the Grand Canyon gets a whooping 5 million. Either way, I enjoyed it. It’s always a bummer when you go to places only to find yourself fighting your way through a sea of bodies to see anything.
Early American settlers knew about this area in the mid-1800’s, but it wasn’t officially named a National Monument until 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt (it was 1 of the 4 original National Monuments). It was eventually upgraded to a National Park by Congress in 1962. Truthfully, it needs to be protected by the government, because theft of petrified wood and painted rocks is still a big problem, with an estimated 12 tons being stolen from the park every single year. We saw countless signs warning not to take any wood or be subject to a fine, but as they’d have no real way of knowing unless you’re caught red-handed, or they search every single vehicle that leaves the park, theft unfortunately still occurs. 😤
As for my personal experience there, I loved it. My friend Kristi, not so much. If you are a lover of hiking, the outdoors (particularly the Southwest), and National Parks and or Monuments, this is your jam. If you are not, truthfully I would skip it 🤷🏻♀️. Like I said, it’s enormous, and can take all day (or multiple days) to really see everything. We were there for several hours and still had to skip numerous areas, as we still had a 3-hour drive to Phoenix ahead of us. Also, it can get HOT (hiking in 100° heat is never a great idea) in the summertime, so plan accordingly and pack appropriately. Camping is allowed and that’s something I’d love to go back and do. I can only imagine how beautiful and clear the night sky would be, plus all the stars!
While we didn’t get to visit all the places, we did see quite a few. These include Tawa Point, the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, Pintado Point, Lacey Point, Newspaper Rock, the Tepees, Blue Forest, Blue Mesa, and the Crystal Forest. While this seems like a lot, this is maybe only half of all the stops and lookout points located along the highway inside the park.
While I was bummed that we couldn’t visit Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico that morning (we had come from NM on a road trip), I was slightly okay with it because there are also ancient petroglyphs located in the Petrified Forest. Officially called Newspaper Rock, although there are actually two separate rocks, they have been here since at least 1000–1500 CE. There are more than 650 petroglyphs on these rocks. Unfortunately, due to people’s inability to keep their hands to themselves, access to the petroglyphs has been totally restricted, but you can still view them from above, through a telescope. It’s slightly irritating, because you used to be able to take a trail right to the base of the rocks they’re carved on, but not anymore. Nonetheless, it’s still an enriching life experience to be able to view these thousands of years old carvings. The mere fact that they’ve stood the test of time is remarkable.
While Kristi may disagree (she thinks all these places looked the same), I think they were all unique and beautiful in their own way. Tawa Point is one of the first stops inside the park (if you come from I-40) and is the quintessential picture one associates with the Painted Desert. It’s breathtaking and beautiful. It’s also incredibly and almost eerily quiet, the sound of the relatively nearby interstate almost completely drowned out by the dips and drops in the desert.
My favorite parts were the Tepees and Blue Mesas inside the Blue Forest. While all the places were magnificent in their own exclusive, weird way, these two were incredible in that I’ve never seen blue and purple rocks or hills. It really makes you feel like you’ve landed on an alien planet, – in fact, I distinctly remember Kristi and I discussing how we felt like we were on Mars. The landscape is so extra-terrestrial and otherworldly, combined with the absence of people and the remarkable level of silence, it’s easy to imagine you’re on another planet.
The Crystal Forest is not much of a forest, but rather, where a forest once stood. There is a ton of petrified and crystalized wood sprinkled throughout, some cut into tiny stumps, while others are full trees that continue to lay where they fell an unfathomable amount of time ago (approximately 225 million years ago 😧). These were 200-foot tall conifers (trees with cones like cedars, pines, redwoods, spruces, etc), and they fell for a number of reasons, but mainly it was due to time, climate, and geologic forces. Eventually, layers of mud and volcanic ash covered the fallen trees, creating the fossilized effect we see today.
We both enjoyed this part because it was an easy and walkable path totaling 0.8 miles. This path takes you up close and personal to the petrified wood. They were created when small pockets in the wood were filled with deposits that eventually turned into quartz and amethyst crystals. You can touch the wood if you want, but I’m sure it’s discouraged. In fact, as mentioned, the park claims hefty fines and even possible jail time for anyone who picks up or attempts to remove any petrified wood. I thought the crystalized wood was absolutely beautiful and would pay good money to own a stump like this one, but it’s certainly not worth possible jail time or a gigantic fine.
Overall, I enjoyed my visit to the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert. I think it’s a National Park that will only appeal to certain people, particularly desert lovers or National Park enthusiasts. It’s not my favorite National Park (shoutout to Zion and the Sequoias), but I still think it’s incredible in its own right and worth a visit. I’d really like to go back and spend a full day there. I promised my father we would go once he moves to Arizona in 2022, as he’s never been, so it’ll definitely happen. I also fully plan on camping out there one day too!🤘🏼🤙🏼