Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. For some reason, people mistakenly tend to consider these two wonders of Arizona‘s nature as two separate and distinct national parks. The first one looks like a petrified forest in the middle of nowhere, while the second one looks more like a desert painted by an artist. The truth is that you can visit them both at once! How? You may ask. And above all, where are they? How long does it take to visit this beautiful corner of Arizona? Can you visit it by car? What to do? Can you also go hiking?
If you find yourself in the middle of a West Coast trip, you’ll have to go past the magnificent Grand Canyon, the friendly Flagstaff, the magical Sedona and the impressive Meteor Crater, and continue east on Route 66 in Arizona until you reach Holbrook, the best place for accommodations and supplies in the area.
The Petrified Forest of Arizona has two entrances:
- to get to the north entrance, simply follow the signs for Petrified Forest National Park. You won’t actually have to enter Holbrook, just continue on I-40 E (Route 66) for about 25 miles. The Painted Desert is closer to this entrance, so if you want to start by going to the Painted Desert, follow these directions.
- if you want to travel across the Petrified Forest from the south, you will have to pass Holbrook and take the US-180 E. The southern entrance to Petrified Forest Road is on the left, at the Crystal Forest Museum & Gifts. If you’re afraid you won’t find the road, count 18 miles from the bridge over the Little Colorado River, but you’ll see signs.
Painted Desert: things to do on the Scenic Drive
Start from the north entrance, and head immediately to Painted Desert, perhaps one of the most bizarre area of the park along with Blue Mesa. It is very well known, but it has nothing to do with the fossils of petrified trees that make this park memorable. Painted Desert is an arid and barren desert expanse of many colors.
The colors of the rocks form a rainbow that ranges from yellow to blue to red to grey, similar to landscapes in the heart of Death Valley, especially Painter’s Palette. The geological motif is always the same, i.e. a particular concentration of minerals such as manganese and iron that make up the Chinle Formation.
The primary difference is that here the color palette is decidedly broader and more imaginative. While on the subject – focusing on rock formations in Arizona – we can mention the far more bizarre Coal Mine Canyon, although here the rocks have different shapes and even more varied.
Photography enthusiasts will know how to capture the view and colors that are different during the various moments of the day. You can witness this as you drive along the 6 miles of Park Road, which runs on a plateau that offers beautiful views of the colorful ravines of this unique painted desert in Arizona.
Along of the road, you will find some well-marked observation points, namely Tiponi Point, Tawa Point, Kachina Point (at the Painted Desert Inn, an old lodge for those who used to travel Route 66, where today you can cool off and visit the museum), Chinde Point, Pintado Point, Nizhoni Point, Whipple Point and Lacey Point.
The points mentioned are in order from the start of Park Road and all have parking lots that make them easily recognizable. You don’t have to necessarily go on trails, but you may walk some short distances. All of the points serve as terraces overlooking the panorama below.
Petrified National Forest: what to do and best trails
After driving through the scenic loop around the Painted Desert, you will cross Route 66 (as you approach Route 66, you will see the visible wreck of a 1932 Studebaker) and you will enter Petrified Forest Road, driving (about 28 miles) from north to south. If you are worried about the timing of your visit, I want to reassure you that you can visit the whole park – including the Painted Desert – in as little as 3 hours. So here is what you will see:
- Puerco Pueblo: an archaeological site of the Anasazi settlements of well over 6 centuries ago in the village of Puerco. The parking lot is located further on the road, after two overpasses. The route is quick and the panels give a comprehensive explanation of the urban structure of the village.
- Newspaper Rock: just a mile after Puerco Pueblo, there are more ruins of the ancestral civilizations. Newspaper Rock, ironically, refers to a group of 650 petroglyphs engraved on some rocks in this area of the park. It’s hard to follow the narrative line of the engravings, but there are some free telescopes to see the engravings more clearly.
Alien Landscapes: Blue Mesa
Returning to the main road, you’ll see that the landscape will change radically. You’ll find yourself in an alien landscape, surrounded by wide ravines (badlands) painted in pale cold colors such as gray, red, white and blue.
You will drive through this surreal landscape on the Blue Mesa Scenic Road, a secondary road that leads to a parking lot. From there walk down an impressive, unspoiled, one-mile trail that winds its way up to these bizarre blue-striped badlands, that have shades of grey and purple and eerie shapes. There’s no other place like this, as far as I’m concerned…
Petrified Forest Trails
After passing through Blue Mesa, we finally arrive at the so-called Petrified Forest of Arizona. First, you will see – on the left – Agate Bridge, a large petrified tree trunk joining two sides of a gully. Then you will find Jasper Forest, a vantage point where you can see other petrified forests, and Crystal Forest, a paved footpath of just under a mile with petrified logs and tree trunks, with quartz crystals embedded in them.
When you finally get to the southern end of the park, you’ll find two more trails leading into desolate wastelands dotted with petrified tree skeletons.
The Giant Logs Trail (0.6 miles) starts at the Rainbow Forest Museum (a museum of prehistoric fossils) and leads to Old Faithful, the largest petrified trunk in the park. The other trail, heading east, is Long Logs Trail (2.1 miles). This trail is a little longer and also leads to Agate House, an old petrified wooden house.
Petrified Forest National Park Map
Visiting the various sections of the park is very simple, but studying the map in advance will make it even easier. You will be given a map when you enter the park.
Where to stay near Petrified Forest
It is not possible to sleep in the park, but there are several options to choose from. As we mentioned earlier, the closest inhabited area to the park is Holbrook, a town on the Mother Road, with a fair number of accommodations, especially motels. The best-known motel, made famous by the legendary Route 66, is Wigwam Motel, which offers some accommodations in Indian teepees.
If the Petrified Forest of Arizona is just a short stop for you, you can find accommodations in Flagstaff (if you’re going west towards the Grand Canyon) or Gallup, if you’re heading in the opposite direction, towards New Mexico. Finally, if you prefer, you can also look for accommodations in Albuquerque.