The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is easily described as one of the most exotic National Parks, we’ve ever visited. The combination of desert landscape and wickedly awesome fossils definitely make this park a “must visit” if you’re in the area . We visited the Petrified Forest while on our road trip through Arizona to New Mexico, and were stunned by its natural beauty.
Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park is found in the Eastern part of the state between Flagstaff and the state border (for a detailed map and route see the end of this post). As the name suggests, the park features vast outcroppings of petrified trees from the Triassic period, but by no means is that the only natural feature in the parks 146 square miles. In addition to the colorful crystal like wood, one can see eroded badlands, animal fossils, and a part of the Painted Desert. The park is great for a day trip, but also offers extended hikes and overnight camping. While the park is dog friendly, they are to remained leashed at all times and are only allowed on the designated trails.
The Petrified Forest has two entrances, we chose the southern entrance, as it lead us back to the interstate on the way out. When we first arrived, we drove through some of the parks badlands, and were wowed by their visceral beauty. In many ways the Badlands here were similar to the ones in South Dakota, but much smaller.
After passing through the badlands at the beginning of the park, there are many turn-outs that lead to several hiking trails and other stopping points where you can get a close up view of the petrified portions of “wood”.
At this point, they are no longer wood at all but are in fact fossilized crystals and minerals that have retained their original shape. These fossils formed when trees fell into river beds and then were buried by dirt and sediment mixed with volcanic ash. Over time this formed crystals and other mineral deposits that gradually replaced the decaying organic matter to form the fossils we see today. After being covered for thousands of years, they were exposed as the rock and dirt eroded away.
When the Petrified Forest was first discovered, it was a very popular stop-off along the railway that runs through the northern part of the park. Visitors and entrepreneurs would make it a point to stop and collect as much of the petrified wood as possible. When cut and polished properly the “wood” is incredibly ornate and features a wide array of colors. The final product, is often sold for thousands of dollars. Because of this, landscapes that were once flush with fossils, are now almost barren.
When the park was originally commissioned, the rangers would do what they could to preserve the integrity of some of the wonders of the Petrified Forest. One of the clearest examples of this is the Agate Bridge, a whole petrified log that is propped up by a concrete bridge below it.
If the National Park Service had followed todays more “natural policies” beauties like this would have fallen in disrepair. As we continued our drive through park, we often found ourselves just stopping and gazing in silent awe at the natural beauty of it all. I can only imagine what the first people to have found this place would have thought as they came over a hill to find such exotic stones. Even today, when we understand all the science and facts behind it, it’s mind-blowing to comprehend how such natural beauty was formed.
As we came towards the end of the road that leads through the park, we came across an unexpected landmark. At one point old Route 66 used to run through the park, and they built a small monument to mark that point.
Right at this point you cross under the interstate and enter the northern portion of the National Park. Here there are a couple more stopping points where you can see the southern end of the Painted Desert.
After this last stop we passed the Northern Visitors Center and the Painted Desert Inn, which is a National Historical Landmark as well. The total time through the park’s road is about 45 minutes, but if you stop and gawk a lot, or enjoy some of the many trials, expect to easily spend 3-4 hours in the park.
Directions and Petrified Forest National Park Map
When driving East from Flagstaff, the best way to enter the park is from the southern entrance. Doing so will avoid having to double back when you get to the end of the park. To do so, take I-40 to Holbrook, AZ and use exit 285 for HWY 180. Then follow 180 East until you reach the entrance to the Petrified Forest National Park. It will be on your left hand side after about 20 miles. Once through the park you will be left off at the entrance to I-40 where you can continue your drive East.
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For more facts and information, including hours and maps, take a look at the official website of the Petrified Forest National Park, here.