Petrified Forest National Park: 250 Million Years In the Making

Our Visit to Petrified Forest National Park:

How does a tree get petrified and turn into stone?  Petrified Forest National Park has great examples of stones that look like logs, because they once were logs.

Tour Direction for Petrified Forest National Park

Do we tour the Petrified Forest National Park from north to south or south to north?  That was the question as we left the small town of Holbrook, Arizona.  The accessible part of the Petrified Forest National Park is along a 29 mile drive with most of the petrified logs on the southern portion of the drive.  We decided to go from north to south, saving the best for last.

Ranger Jo Lynn greeted us enthusiastically at the Painted Desert visitor center on the northern end of the park, just off of Interstate 40.  We did our park ritual there and listened as she described points of interest.  She encouraged us to do an “Off the Beaten Path” hike and suggested Martha’s Butte or Billings Gap overlook.  She was so enthusiastic it was contagious.  We started to explore in high spirits.

Desert Scenery and Painted Landscape

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Painted Desert

The landscape from the interstate was boring desert with small scrubby plants and very flat landscape.  As we climbed the hill after the visitor center, the landscape changed dramatically.  We stopped at Tiponi Point, Tawa Point, and Painted Desert Inn to view the red and white rolling hills that were barren, at different vantage points.  The sun was trying to peek through the clouds.  Where the sun shone through, the red color turned brilliant for a few seconds before cloud cover turned it dull again. 

The historic Painted Desert Inn was preserved and turned into a museum.  The restaurant and the reception areas were restored to the historic look of the 1920s.  This inn was part of the famous Route 66 history, but the pavement for the original Route 66 was removed, leaving only the telephone poles and a rusty old truck as evidence of the old highway.  Frankly there wasn’t much to look at.


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Newspaper Rock Petroglyph

Newspaper Rock and Puerco Pueblo areas show off petroglyphs from the Puebloan people of a thousand years ago.  I’ll leave it to the experts to figure out what stories were told on these rocks.  Newspaper Rock was the best and most dense petroglyph I’ve seen.  Ranger Jo Lynn was right when she said to bring a binocular to Newspaper Rock for a good view.  The rock was 50 feet below and in front of the observation platform.  Written language is one of the things that differentiates human from animals and  this was a great example of communication by the ancient people of America.

Desert Flowers

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Flower in the Desert

Northern Arizona desert is not a hospitable place for plants, but in the spring and after the rare rainfall, flowers pop up all over the desert floor.  We were lucky to witness the colorful petals of these flowers that seemed so out of place in this harsh, dry environment.  The seeds waited patiently for rain, and burst into full bloom in hope of reproducing when the rain came.  The contrast of these fragile flowers to the hard scrabble hardy bush that surrounded it was interesting.

Blue Rock and Petrified Wood

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Petrified wood at Blue Mesa

We were halfway through the drive but have not seen petrified wood – until we got to Blue Mesa.  The rock formation here has layers of grey, red, and white with a blue hue.  The Blue Forest hike descended steeply into a valley of these rocks with petrified wood on the valley floor.  We examined these petrified logs closely.  They looked like normal logs but with brighter shades of color and were shiney.  Closer look revealed deeper colors of blue and green.  It felt like smooth rock but with the look of a log.  The Blue Forest trail is a must do for Petrified Forest National Park.

Stone Log Bridge

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Agate Bridge

A log fell across a gap in the rock, formed a bridge and was petrified.  Agate Bridge is now a stone bridge that spans across a valley.  NPS had to re enforce this natural bridge so it would not fall apart from its own weight.

Highlight of Petrified Forest National Park: Crystal Forest

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Petrified Logs

Without a doubt, Crystal Forest trail was the highlight of Petrified Forest National Park.  There were petrified logs of all shapes, sizes, and colors.  This 3/4 mile loop meandered around large petrified logs 50 feet long and four foot in diameter.  The short trail is the number one must do.  250 million years ago, the present day Arizona was a forest with rivers running through it.  The tall pine trees fell in the river, floated downstream, and submerged.  The logs were stuck in the sediments, buried over time.  The logs soaked up the ground water and silica from the volcanic ash.  Millions of years later, it crystallized into quartz with different minerals and different colors.  These logs were from the late Triassic Period, when Dinosaurs roamed.

Giant Logs

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Large Petrified Log

The short 0.4 mile Giant Logs trail started behind the Rainbow Forest Museum, going up to a bluff overlooking a valley.  Wind was howling and temperature dropped as the sun went behind the clouds.  There were large logs with diameters over three feet.  Inside the museum, there was a sample of a polished petrified log, with the full spectrum of crystal colors in blue, green, red, and black.  Petrified wood is the third hardest material.  The museum sample took two weeks to cut with a diamond saw and another two weeks to polish.  Even if you wanted to scratch it, you could not.

Off the Beaten Path

We tried one of ranger Jo Lynn’s suggestion – Martha’s Butte.  This was an “off the beaten path” hike with no trails markers.  We parked the car, followed a dry wash, and looked for the butte, which ranger Jo Lynn said you can’t miss.  Well, we missed it.  After a while, we were unsure which direction the butte was.  There are hills that could pass for buttes, but no signs.  I was imagining looking around and see nothing but desert and out of sight of the road, with darkness approaching.  Lost and cold, the coyotes circling, targeting us for their next meal.  I shook my head to get those thoughts out of my mind and decided to return to the car while we can still see the road.  Our off trail orienteering adventure didn’t last very long.

Thought for Petrified Forest National Park:

Knowledge is talent hardened by experience, just like wood hardened into valuable crystal with time and proper environment.

Impressions of Petrified Forest National Park:

The highlight of the park is the concentration of petrified wood in the southern portion of the park.  When I see “Forest” in the name, I conjure up an image of standing trees turned into rock.  Of course, that is not the case.  “Petrified Wood” doesn’t sound as interesting.  The park delivers on the promise of lots of petrified wood, with some interesting desert landscapes and vibrant colors.  Painted Desert and the layered colors of rock formations are smaller versions of similar scenes at other parks such as Death Valley and Badlands.  There isn’t much hiking other than the short walks, but these walks are excellent.  NPS encourages off the trail hiking which we tried but were too skittish to go far.

Have you visited Petrified Forest National Park?  Leave a comment below on your experience.   

Petrified Forest National Park Rating:

(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings.  All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)

Element Rating (out of 5 Stars)
Scenery ⭐⭐
Accessibility ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Touring ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Overall ⭐⭐

Guide to Petrified Forest National Park:

Top Attractions at Petrified Forest National Park:

  • Crystal Forest
  • Blue Mesa Loop
  • Newspaper Rock
  • Painted Desert
  • Giant Log
  • Puerco Puebloans

One Day Visit Plan:

  • Start from the Painted Desert Visitor center, just off of exit 131 on I-40
  • Stop by the various scenic over looks north of I-40, including Painted Desert Inn
  • Stop at Puerco Puebloans and take the short walk to the ruins and the petroglyph
  • Stop at Newspaper Rock and make sure you bring binoculars
  • Make the turn off to Blue Forest.  Hike the Blue Mesa trail.  This is a must see.
  • Make a quick stop at Agate Bridge
  • Stop and linger at Crystal Forest and take the 3/4 mile walk.  This is a must see.
  • Make the trek to Martha’s Butte if you want to do a “off the beaten path” trail less hike.  Be sure to know how to orienteer.
  • Stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum and see the colorful log on display
  • Take the Giant Log trail
  • If time allows, take the Long Log trail
  • Exit the part via US180

Practical Info for Visiting Petrified Forest National Park:

  • One day is enough to tour this park.  Half day is enough if you want to concentrate on petrified wood.
  • This park is excellent for auto touring.
  • Drive the 29 mile road north to south, if you want to save the best for last.
  • Access is easy.  The north entrance is right off of Interstate 40.
  • Hikes are short and flat.
  • Holbrook is the closest town, which has decent services.
  • Petrified wood fragments are expensive.  You can purchase them at the Rainbow Forest museum or at various Indian gift shops near the park.

Petrified Forest National Park Facts:

  • Size: 93,532 acres, ranked 38th
  • Visitors: 627,757 in 2017, ranked 32nd.  Record was 936,429 visitors in 1993
  • Peak Month in 2017: 82,104 visitors in June
  • Low Month in 2017: 21,907 visitors in Februry
  • Entrance Fee: $20 per vehicle, $10 per person not in a vehicle

Date Visited: April 25, 2017

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