ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Things to Do in Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona makes the easiest one-day national park trip. You see so much in just a few hours and cover the park in a full day. You get a bonus of seeing Arizona’s Painted Desert while driving the famed Route 66 while exploring things to do in Petrified Forest National Park.
This park sparkles and radiates with an energy that has everyone who visited saying “Why is Petrified Forest so underrated?”
The lonely drive between Flagstaff and Albuquerque begs for a pitstop, and Petrified Forest National Park’s perfect location takes you through a 200-million-year journey. That’s how I ended up there on a spring day several years ago. And that “lonely road”? It’s filled with mind-blowing things to see and do.
Don’t let the word “petrified” worry you – these trees are more sparkly than sinister. Petrified wood forms when trees buried deep under sand and volcanic ash are inundated with minerals replacing decaying wood over millions of years. Something once living was tuned to “stone,” and the word petrified anthropomorphized to meaning “frozen (like stone) with fear.”
I’ve designed this catering to everyone, whether you have one hour or a full day. Plus, find out how you can get into the park after dark for stargazing.
TABLE OF CONTENTS: Things to Do in Petrified Forest National Park
Table of contents
- 5 Quick Petrified Forest National Park Things to Know
- Petrified Forest Arizona Map and Easy Directions
- Things to Do in Petrified Forest
- 10. Drive Petrified Forest Road
- 9. Pause for the Painted Desert
- 8. Short Hikes in Petrified Forest (<3 Miles)
- 7. See Martha’s Butte
- 6. Longer Hikes in Petrified Forest (>5 Miles)
- 5. Get VIP Seats to Fossils
- 4. Take a Tour
- 3. Red Basin Clam Beds
- 2. Camping in Petrified Forest Wilderness
- 1. Stargazing in Petrified Forest
- Is Visiting Petrified Forest Worth It?
- List of Things to Do in Petrified Forest National Park
- Map of Things to Do in Petrified Forest National Park
5 Quick Petrified Forest National Park Things to Know
- Entrance fees are $25 per vehicle. You can use the America the Beautiful pass here if you’re visiting several public lands. It costs $80 for one year of access to more than 2,000+ public lands.
- Petrified Forest National Park loves dogs – it’s one of the most dog-friendly in the entire park system. Leashed pets are allowed on all roads, trails, and backcountry areas. Your dog can even become a B.A.R.K. Ranger and set a good example for other pets.
- The park is NOT open 24/7. Arizona doesn’t adhere to Daylight Saving Time, and Petrified Forest National Park is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. In summer, Arizona is in the same time zone as California. In winter, it shares the time zone with New Mexico.
- It’s against federal law to take any rocks, minerals, or petrified wood from the park. You’ll find plenty of gift shops at each entrance to the park.
- The nearest hotels in Holbrook, Arizona, sit just 20 minutes from both park entrances. The LaQuinta in Holbrook is the closest.
Petrified Forest Arizona Map and Easy Directions
Pay special attention to the best way to get in and out of the park. It all depends on which direction you are traveling on I-40.
Petrified Forest Road runs about 30 miles between I-40 and Highway 180. The two-way road doesn’t loop.
- For those heading west on I-40, it makes the most sense to exit the interstate at Mile Marker 311, drive through the park, and then take Highway 180 to Holbrook, where you’ll catch up with the interstate again.
- Eastbound I-40 traffic should exit at Mile Marker 285 in Holbrook, catch up with Highway 180, and take the south entrance. Both options have amenities and gift shops at entrances.
Things to Do in Petrified Forest
First, use this list as a buffet experience, not a countdown. Many of the things to do in Petrified Forest depend on how much time you have, the weather conditions, and the time of day.
10. Drive Petrified Forest Road
No matter which entrance you take, the 28-mile road offers viewpoints along the way, with a few spur roads leading to more views. This Petrified Forest activity is perfect if you only have an hour or two to spare on a road trip.
Petrified Forest Road curves along the way but otherwise gives you long stretches of open highway. Forget about nail-biting vertical drops – this is an easy drive. Speed limits range from 25-45 miles per hour. Bicyclists love to ride this route, too.
I’m especially fond of this drive in summer when monsoons roll in because you can see the storms forming in the distance. Rain shafts dance on the horizon with lightning strikes that stretch the sky.
Pit Stop: Is that a Rusted Studebaker?
Yes, it is! The old Studebakers in Petrified Forest National Park is an icon. You’ll find it six miles from the north entrance, with a special pull-out to take a look. The location isn’t by accident – this marks the spot where Route 66 once went through during its transcontinental heyday. The car was added in 2006.
9. Pause for the Painted Desert
The Painted Desert’s palette of colors awaits on the northern edge of the park. Stop by the Painted Desert Inn first to get a history lesson and some keepsakes.
While Painted Desert and Petrified Forest are sometimes used interchangeably, they aren’t the same exact thing.
The Painted Desert covers 150 miles from the Grand Canyon’s southeastern corner, slashing southeast through northern Arizona.
The northern portion of Petrified Forest National Park includes expansive views of the Painted Desert. In addition, it offers easier access to these colorful badlands in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area.
Most of the Painted Desert is on Navajo Nation land.
Painted Desert Viewpoints
Since the Painted Desert of Arizona wraps around the northern section of the park, you get three ideal viewing areas.
- Tawa Point: Ripples of colorful rocks unfold for miles in front of you.
- Kachina Point: Faces northeast, right behind the Painted Desert Inn.
- Chinde Point: Enjoy a picnic here while soaking in the views less than 3 miles from the interstate.
- Pintado Point: Facing the bulk of the Painted Desert, this view offers several landmarks on the horizon.
Each point includes information kiosks in addition to those epic views.
Painted Desert Rim Trail
Stretch your legs on this short one-mile hike between Tawa Point and Kachina Point. I particularly liked that this trail could’ve just been part of the road, but the effort was made to weave it along the edge. You get a little more solitude and don’t need to worry about cars approaching as you soak in monster views of the Painted Desert.
The trail is easy enough, though it’s not paved – and you’ll encounter more people than some of the other trails deeper in the park.
8. Short Hikes in Petrified Forest (<3 Miles)
Let’s get into some easier and/or shorter hikes since the part closes at 5:00 pm, and I want to give you the best value for your time.
Another reason I think Petrified Forest National Park needs more accolades is due to the short hikes that allow you to see more places. It would be hard to hike five trails in the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park in one day – here, it’s doable.
Giant Logs Trail and Rainbow Forest Museum
The two(or three)-for-one attraction near the southern entrance to Petrified Forest National Park makes it one of the best things to do, even on a short visit. The Giant Logs Trail is one of three trails that start from the parking lot of the Rainbow Forest Museum.
Even though this trail spans less than half a mile, take your time exploring the massive downed petrified trees. At the top of the trail sits Old Faithful (the tree), with a giant base almost 10 feet wide and a trunk 35 feet long.
If you look closely at the slices in the three, that’s where a lightning strike in the 1960s blew the tree into several pieces. Park staff put it back together with concrete.
The trail is naturally littered with trees and wood pieces. I remember remarking that it looked like giants left behind kindling wood after a campfire.
Circle back around to the Rainbow Forest Museum Parking area and consider the 1.6-mile Long Logs Trail, one of the best places to see a lot of petrified wood in one area. As the name suggests, the trees here are very long.
You can tack on Agate House Trail for another half mile added to the distance. Petrified wood makes a sturdy building material, as you’ll see at Agate House. From a distance, I would’ve sworn this was stone. Chunks of wood put together like a Jenga game make up the walls of his former home.
TRAVEL TIP: Long Logs & Giant Logs Trails are across the street from each other. If you’re entering from the south side, you still have a LOT of park to see. I’d recommend choosing ONE of these if you’re in a time crunch.
Blue Mesa sits smack dab in the middle of the park road, making it no easier or more challenging to access no matter which entrance you use. If you take just one hike in Petrified Forest to see the colorful landscape, make it this one or the Blue Forest Trail.
If you’ve followed any of my adventures here on More Than Just Parks, you know how much I love hoodoos. You’ll find those mixed with petrified wood fragments and colorful badland mounds.
The scenic viewpoint offers an easy stop, but I must implore you – get out of the car for this one mile. You walk on a trail above the mounds before taking a short path down to base level. I’ve yet to see a photo that captures the colors perfectly. Yes, that’s blue – and purple – and the most chocolate brown you’ve ever imagined.
Kiosks along the way explain how erosion continues to unearth paleontological artifacts. From here, you can also take a longer wilderness route on Billings Gap that spans three miles around the edge of the mesa.
The Crystal Forest boasts the most dynamic examples of sparkling petrified wood. You get to see a lot of it, too, on this .75-mile loop. The good-sized gathering of wood also makes for a “if you can only hike one trail” stop, but the panoramic views aren’t as good as you’ll find on some other trails.
While the peaks of the Blue Mesa are visible, it’s not worth coming down this spur road if you won’t be hiking the trail. The up-close views are simply hypnotizing. Several long logs line the trail, which could make up for missing Long Long Trail if you choose.
MORE CRYSTALS TO COME: Despite the name, Crystal Forest isn’t the ONLY trail to see the petrification sparkles. If you miss this trail, you won’t miss the dynamic designs on the other trails.
Jasper Forest or First Forest
Both Jasper Forest and First Forest trails start at the Jasper Forest Parking lot. Each trail offers a different vantage point at the end, but it’s the wood sticking out of the rock – waiting to be eroded – that stands out on these trails.
But first, a few things to know about these “trails.” The park provides guides for these “off-the-beaten-path” routes, which I’ve attached below, but this is basically a short backcountry hike with no set trails.
Second, any water here will make the ground a clay and sediment gunky mess. Getting caught in a storm could be dangerous or deadly.
Explore Jasper Forest
Jasper Forest’s 2.5 miles takes you through yet another collection of huge petrified wood fields–another “giant’s had a campfire” spot.
The trail meanders through mesa after mesa until you reach what was once Eagles Nest.
As erosion took over, the symbolic icon of the park crumbled in 1941 during a wicked January storm.
Back in those days, this area was called First Forest, which can make these two trails confusing. Hopefully, this helps alleviate confusion for your trip.
Much like the arches at Arches National Park will eventually crumble, so did Eagles Nest.
Since the route is out-and-back, you can easily retrace your steps to the parking area.
Hike to First Forest Point
Only try this route when you know the ground is dry because you’ll be walking through a wash. The trail goes in the opposite direction from Jasper Forest. This trail quite literally runs out and back, so it’s not as hard to get turned around.
Explore the wash for more petrified wood and massive boulders carried by the torrential rains Arizona gets each summer.
After about a mile, you’ll start scrambling up the side of a mesa to get a sensational sweeping view from the top.
Go back the way you came, and you’ll complete a 2.1-mile out-and-back hike.
7. See Martha’s Butte
The place to go for petroglyphs in Petrified Forest, Arizona, is Martha’s Butte. As another trail without a trail, you can follow the park’s suggested route or meander until you reach the butte. However, it would be hard to get lost on this trail.
Take time to explore the rocks around the base, as some petroglyphs are small or could be hidden by shadows. You’ll also see “Walker’s Stump on the south side. After some debate, it turns out the stump is a log that was stuck almost upright in an ancient river, where it stands halfway entombed in rock today.
6. Longer Hikes in Petrified Forest (>5 Miles)
Painted Desert fans who prefer a longer and more challenging hike in the Wilderness should consider Wilderness Loop’s seven miles of desert dreamscape. Unless you plan to stay overnight, explore without a permit to your heart’s content.
This trail starts at the Painted Desert Inn and loops around the Black Forest Wilderness. You get a mix of petrified wood going back 210 million years, plus unique formations that aren’t always present in other parts of the Petrified Forest National Park.
Stops along the way include:
- Angel’s Garden: Another large collection of petrified wood.
- Onyx Bridge: A long, petrified wood tree that spans an arroyo. The tree collapsed from its bridge formation in 2020, but the remains are still there.
- Lithodendron Wash: I couldn’t help but think of the bible passage “The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood” when I saw the orangeish-red water in the wash. Luckily, the coloring comes from the clay in the nearby hills, not the apocalypse.
- Devil’s Playground: An ominous yet intriguing collection of rock formations. You can jump to the Devil’s Playground section to learn more.
Blue Forest Trail
As noted above, this trail sounds a lot like the Blue Mesa Trail, but each is a different option around the same area. In fact, the Blue Forest Trail was closed down for years after the Blue Mesa Loop Trail opened. However, a more robust hike in this section of the park was in high demand.
Instead of taking Blue Mesa Loop Road, you’ll park near the Teepee formations. You can pair this hike to meet up with the Blue Mesa Loop Trail if you’d like.
The Blue Forest Trail demands your attention because with each mesa you circle, a new view displays. You work your way through the mesas before the option to descend even lower to the Blue Mesa Loop Trail. If you do this trail as an out-and-back, it’s three miles.
Welcome to the only part of Petrified Forest National Park that requires a permit to day hike. Intrepid hikers need to know of this marvel in the desert, just added to the wilderness area in 2014.
The Devil’s Playground blends everything awesome about Petrified Forest National Park into an expansive location that somehow feels intimate. It’s a playground, alright, with boulders, scrambling, and small caves hidden among the mesas.
This beautiful and remote part of the park is in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area. The landscape is highly eroded into fanciful shapes and banded with gray, purple, and blue. The colors remind me of a candy-filled Easter basket.
The hike should run about eight miles, but with a map that references things like “a bush” and “the wash,” it took me about 10 miles to get through it, with ample time spent climbing on rocks–after all, it IS a playground.
Nothing “devilish” resides here aside from some peculiar rock formations and boulders that don’t quite seem to rest in cooperation with gravity. The palpable solitude reminds you that only a handful of permits are given each week. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have taken this one solo.
TRAVEL TIP: Call ahead to see if any permits are available. You can only buy them at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, and you can’t reserve them ahead of time. The number is (928)524-6228 extension 236.
5. Get VIP Seats to Fossils
In the spirit of Leave No Trace, any fossils found in the park get scooped up by paleontologists and taken to the Museum Demonstration Lab at the Painted Desert Visitor Center (north entrance to the park).
Here you can see the experts work on these ancient accessories before being formally filed into any database or displayed in any museum.
4. Take a Tour
If any wilderness hikes seem too daunting to try alone, especially without a formal trail, check out the park’s calendar for ranger-guided tours. Devil’s Playground tours happen throughout the year.
You can also check in with Petrified Forest Field Institute to see tour availability for customized options.
3. Red Basin Clam Beds
The Red Basin Clam Beds offers two unique aspects in an 8.5-mile longer trek across relatively flat land.
You get to see prehistoric clams – thousands of them – baked into the rock. Keep looking down, as some might be mixed in with the stones after eroding out of the rock.
In addition, following the trail around the loop takes you to the Sandcastles, perhaps one of the most unique formations in Petrified Forest National Park. Once you work your way around those, you’ll be in the Red Basin.
This extended hike also takes you to some larger logs deep within the wilderness area.
2. Camping in Petrified Forest Wilderness
Like the VIP entrance to the hottest club in town, only a few lucky people get a chance to experience camping at Petrified Forest National Park.
Camping at Petrified Forest National Park requires a backpacking wilderness permit. This means (you guessed it) the only campsites are in the wilderness area. You must pick one up at a visitor center and cannot reserve them ahead of time.
You’ll choose one of the wilderness zones for camping, and rangers are happy to help you choose the best one. Be sure you don’t have a group larger than eight people.
1. Stargazing in Petrified Forest
One of the most unknown options in Petrified Forest National Park comes after dark. Since the park closes at 5:00 pm, too many people assume stargazing isn’t available. The park offers two Dark Sky Viewing Permits daily, each good for one vehicle.
You get a list of permitted stargazing locations with the permit, although wilderness campers can view from their respective area. Permits are only available at the Painted Desert Visitor Center and, like other permits, can’t be reserved.
Is Visiting Petrified Forest Worth It?
Petrified Forest is worth visiting for 210 million reasons and then some. Even social forum after social forum says this is the most underrated park in the system. It’s an easy stop on the way to or from the Grand Canyon.
What you find in Petrified Forest is a landscape like no other on earth – at least not as much petrified wood in one place. While most parks firmly prohibit walking off the trail, the wilderness areas at Petrified Forest don’t have trails. You can plot your own adventure in those designated areas.
Pictures don’t do it justice. Even your eyes don’t absorb the complexity of the petrified wood until you see it at close range. Every hour the sun creates a kaleidoscope of evolving colors.
The downside is that Petrified Forest closes at night. However, it makes sense with so many artifacts and natural treasures to keep the looters and vandals out.
TRAVEL TIP: I also recommend taking the two-hour drive to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a canyon grand in its own right.
List of Things to Do in Petrified Forest National Park
- Stargazing in Petrified Forest National Park
- Camping in Petrified Forest Wilderness
- Red Basin Clam Beds
- Take a Tour
- Get VIP Seats to Fossils
- Take a Hike (5+ Miles)
- See Martha’s Butte
- Short Hikes (Less than 3 Miles)
- Pause for the Painted Desert
- Drive Petrified Forest Road
Map of Things to Do in Petrified Forest National Park
Pin Things to Do in Petrified Forest
Helpful Related Links
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