The Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert is somewhere I had been wanting to visit for a very long time. This is an extraordinarily vast national park, where you must drive from point to point (hiking along the road is possible, but not something I’d recommend, especially during summertime). It’s open daily from 8am to 5pm (only closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas) and costs $25 per car to enter. It’s a tad 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. 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.
(Btw, you can catch wonderful glimpses of the painted desert for free by taking Highway 89 from the Grand Canyon to Page, Arizona. You’re welcome 😉 ).
Located in Navajo and Apache Counties in NE Arizona, it’s a fascinating area, rich in Native American culture and history, with evidence of people dating as far back as 12,000 years ago, between 8,000 BCE and 1,000 BCE. The park stretches north to south between I-40 and Highway 180, covering about 346 square miles. There are two entrances, depending on which direction you come from, one to the north and one to the south. The north entrance sits literally right off Interstate 40 (you even have to pass under it 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.
As far as national parks go, there were very few visitors. I’m not sure if this was due to the location, time of year (early March), or if it’s simply not as popular as other national parks. To put it into some 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 (Grand Canyon National Park (it’s really grand).) gets a whooping 5 million. However, I thoroughly enjoyed not having to fight my way through a sea of bodies to see everything!
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 his 4 original National Monuments). It was eventually upgraded to a National Park by Congress in 1962. Truthfully, I believe that it needs to be protected, because theft of the petrified wood and painted rocks is still a huge problem, with an estimated 12 tons being stolen from the park every single year. We saw countless signs warning people not to take any wood or be subject to a fine, but some do not care.
As for my personal opinion, I loved it. My travel partner, not so much. If you are a lover of the outdoors, Southwest, and National Parks, this will be your jam. If you are not, you may considering skipping. As mentioned, 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. Also, it can get very HOT, 100°+ during the summertime, so best to plan accordingly and pack appropriately. Camping is allowed and firmly on my return bucket list. I can only imagine how beautiful all the stars must be!
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.
Officially called Newspaper Rock (singular), there are actually two separate rocks, with both having been there since at least 1000–1500 CE. There are more than 650 petroglyphs on these rocks. Unfortunately, due to people’s inability to remain respectful, access to the petroglyphs has been completely restricted, but you can still view them from above, through a telescope. It’s unfortunate since you used to be able to take a trail right to the base of the rocks and see the petroglyphs closeup, but not anymore. Nonetheless, it’s still an enriching life experience to be able to view these thousands of years old carvings.
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, while also incredibly and eerily quiet. The sound of the relatively nearby interstate is almost completely drowned out by the dips and drops in the desert.
My favorite part was the Tepees and Blue Mesas inside the Blue Forest. While all the places were magnificent in their own weird ways, 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, while photographing the Tepees, I distinctly remember telling my travel companion about how I felt like we were on Mars. The landscape is very extra-terrestrial and otherworldly, combined with a total absence of people and remarkable level of silence.
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 approximately 225 million years ago 😧. These were 200-foot tall conifers, a.k.a. trees with cones like cedars, pines, redwoods, spruces, etc., which fell for a number of reasons, but mainly due to time, climate, and geologic forces. Eventually, layers of mud and volcanic ash covered these 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. The path takes you right through the petrified wood. You can touch the wood if you want, but it’s discouraged. In fact, as mentioned, the government claims hefty fines and even possible jail time for anyone who attempts to remove any petrified wood. I thought the crystalized wood was stunningly beautiful and would pay good money to own a stump like the one below, but it’s obviously not worth possible jail time or a gigantic fine.
Overall, I enjoyed visiting the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert. However, I think it’s a National Park that will appeal to only certain people, i.e. desert lovers or National Park enthusiasts. It’s not my favorite National Park I’ve been to (shoutout to Zion National Park.), but I still think it’s incredible in its own right and 100% worth a visit. I’d love to/fully plan to go back and spend a full day/night there. Until next time!🤘🏼🤙🏼