Date of Trip: March 31st, 2018
We pulled into the Petrified Forest National Park parking lot just as the sun cleared the horizon. We were so excited to get a jump start on hiking. The plan was to hit the trails before 7 a.m. and beat the crowds. What we found was a closed gate and a sign stating, “Park Closed Do Not Enter.” The park opens at 8 a.m. We had over an hour to wait in the lot for the park to open. The nearest towns are Sun Valley, 20 miles to the west and Chambers, 20 miles to the east. Neither one of them offer anything too exciting in the way of entertainment or eating establishments, so we just stayed in the parking lot for that hour.
Right at 8 a.m. we drove into the north entrance and headed to the visitor center to check things out and get our bearings. Though it is a small park, Petrified Forest boasts a pleasant visitors center. It has clean restrooms, cold water, a large gift shop, and a cafe perfect for a quick lunch or snack. There is another visitor center at the south entrance which also has water and restrooms.
The park is split into two parts: The “Painted Desert” to the north and “The Rainbow Forest” to the south. I-40 divides the sections. The north visitor center is located in the Painted Desert, and the south visitor center is located in the Rainbow Forest. The Painted Desert is beautiful, but it has very little to do with petrified wood. There is very little accessible hiking in the Painted Desert unless you venture into the wilderness area. It is mainly famous for its geological history. We stopped at some viewpoints along our way but were honestly not super impressed by this part of the park.
Route 66 used to run straight through the park and was the original road tourists would take to see the park. There is a small homage to this as the last pullout in the Painted Desert.
And, finally, the drive enters the Rainbow Forest. This is where petrified wood is found in high density. There are also a lot of fun, easy hikes in this area. The landscape becomes beautiful and interesting.
First, Puerco Pueblo.
Puerco Pueblo is only .3 miles round trip. It is an interpretative trail showing a recovered Native American community space. This is great for families as it is short and interactive.
At the end of the trail is a small historical museum that is a great place to cool off!
Next, Blue Mesa.
If you only have time to do ONE THING in the park make the Blue Mesa that thing! By far, this is my most favorite part of the park.
The Blue Mesa badlands are the first stop (if you are coming from the north) where you really start to see an abundance of petrified wood. This spot is particularly incredible because the petrified wood is not the only attraction. The wood lives in blue badlands, rolling and colorful hills made from eroded clay, mud, and rock.
A short loop drive will take you to many viewpoints overlooking this fantastic canyon. You will want a camera with zoom. Phone cameras fail to capture the magnificence.
At the top of the loop, you can get out and hike an easy 1-mile loop that takes you right down into the formations. The trail starts as a winding descent and then evens out to an easy stroll.
You can get up close to these unique features and petrified logs.
After Blue Mesa, head to Crystal Forest.
Crystal Forest boasts a lot of petrified wood. A leisurely .75 mile hike will take you to colorful petrified logs of all shapes and sizes.
Finally, walk the easy 2-mile out and back to Agate House. Park at the south visitor center, walk across the bridge at the beginning of the parking lot, and you will see the trailhead for Agate House.
This is a super dull hike on a paved path that cuts through a grassy field. There are smaller pieces of petrified wood scattered throughout the field. It is hot and bright and had me thinking “why am I doing this?” The hike ends in a spectacular example of pueblo architecture.
I was so glad I added this hike at the end of the day! The ancient dwellers used the petrified wood as construction material, and the effect is stunning. Plan it in, though, because this trail closes at 4:30 p.m.
Places to Camp:
There are no campground facilities inside the park. Backcountry camping permits are available but require a 1-mile hike, minimum, from parking. For more information on camping in other areas around the park visit the nps.gov website.
1. There is not a lot to do around Petrified Forest as far as food and lodging go. Chamber and Sun Valley are the nearest towns at 20 miles away. There are small restaurants, gas stations, and hotels in each town but not a lot else.
2. Petrified Forest is a small park. If you dedicate all day to being here, you can really take it slow and soak everything in without missing anything.
3. The only restrooms are at the north visitor center, the south visitor center, and Puerco Pueblo.
4. The entire park is VERY sunny! The only shade is the occasional man-made picnic or seating area. These are few and far between. All of the trails are in direct sunlight almost the entire time.
Gear of the Trip:
Sunscreen. Did I mention the lack of shade in this park? You are in the sun all day long. I picked up this sunscreen by Neutrogena to test it out on this trip. It worked great! It is a lightweight sunscreen that does not get oily on my skin. It smells amazing. After hiking all day I would get in the car and think, “What is that amazing smell?” I finally figured out it was my sunscreen! I was totally sweaty and dusty but at least I smelled fantastic! This sunscreen comes in a light, small package which also makes it great for throwing in a daypack.