Experience a virtual drive through the Painted Desert & Petrified Forest National Park, and then use Backroad Planet’s guide to plan a road trip of your own.
Table of Contents
- 1 Petrified Forest National Park
- 2 The Painted Desert
- 3 The Petrified Forest
- 4 Travel Tips
- 5 Lodging
- 6 Map It!
- 7 Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip
- 8 More Arizona Posts on Backroad Planet
- 9 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 10 Pin this Post!
Petrified Forest National Park
As I recall, I first learned about Arizona’s Painted Desert and Petrified Forest in elementary school. My imagination was piqued, and a longing to see these places in person never left me, even into adulthood.
While planning an Arizona road trip, I discovered that Petrified Forest National Park was less than an hour’s drive from the town of Winslow, the easternmost destination on our itinerary.
I knew this was my chance to finally visit these otherworldly landscapes.
Petrified Forest National Park is a drive-through park, much like Flagstaff’s Sunset Crater Volcano & Wupatki National Monuments and California’s Joshua Tree National Park.
Although guests can begin exploring the park from either entrance, I recommend driving north to south along the 26-mile route, beginning at the Painted Desert Visitor Center. For some reason I like the way the landscape transitions from the Painted Desert to the Petrified Forest while traveling this direction.
At the visitor center, we toured exhibits, collected our National Parks Passport stamps, and met with a ranger to gather brochures and acquaint ourselves with not-to-be-missed sites on the map.
It was mid-morning, and although we had a cooler stocked with water, we had not made a plan for lunch.
Painted Desert Diner
The Painted Desert Diner at the north entrance visitor center is the only food outlet in the park. If you are not packing a picnic lunch for your visit, you should definitely grab a bite there or get a meal to go.
We had learned about Navajo tacos from our breakfast server at La Posada’s Turquoise Room restaurant in Winslow, but had not yet had the opportunity to try one. Lucky for us, Navajo tacos are the Painted Desert Diner’s specialty.
The biggest difference between a Navajo taco and your average Mexican or American taco is its size. It all begins with a huge piece of Navajo fry bread, smothered with homemade chili and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheddar cheese, salsa, and cilantro-lime crema.
We decided to get two tacos to go. We would find a roadside picnic table somewhere in the park around noon. The only picnic areas in the park, however, are near the north entrance at Chinde Point and the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south entrance.
As it turned out, we had to eat the tacos in the truck and by then the fry bread was no longer crispy. I definitely recommend the Navajo taco, but be sure to eat it when it is freshly-prepared.
A Virtual Drive through Petrified Forest National Park
This post will take you on a virtual drive through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest from the Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north entrance to the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center in the south.
We do not cover every stop along the route, but you can identify locations of overlooks, pullovers, and other park features by using the official NPS map above or the interactive Google map near the bottom of this page.
Now, let’s get on the road . . . .
The Painted Desert
The National Park Service map gives the impression that the Painted Desert is a part of Petrified Forest National Park. Actually, the reverse is true. The park is situated entirely within the head of the comma-shaped Painted Desert, which covers 7,500 square miles and extends to the east end of the Grand Canyon.
The Painted Desert is unlike anything you have ever seen.
Multicolored layers of mudstone and sandstone created over millions of years are a part of the greater Chinle Formation that extends across the Southwest.
Color variations are the result of iron in the sediments and the length of time the layer was exposed to air during the oxidation process.
Tawa Point is a well-developed overlook with a parking area located near the beginning of a drive from the north entrance.
If this panoramic view were all the park had to offer, it would be worth a trip.
Tawa Point is also a central waypoint for two trails: the 1-mile Tawa Trail from the visitor center, and the .5-mile Painted Desert Rim Trail to the Painted Desert Inn.
These trails are ideal if you are traveling with some group members who want to hike and others who want to ride. The riders can easily meet up with the hikers at the next trailhead.
Painted Desert Inn
The Painted Desert Inn is a National Historic Landmark that began as a petrified wood and native stone house built by homesteader Herbert David Lore prior to 1920. The “Stone Tree House” operated as a tourist attraction, offering food, lodging, and tours for nearly twelve years.
The National Park Service purchased the property in 1936. Architect Lyle Bennett redesigned the inn in the Pueblo Revival Style, and Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) workers brought the design to life.
Soon the property became a popular waypoint for travelers along Route 66.
Poles, roofing beams, and crossbeams of the Pueblo Revival Style were cut from Arizona ponderosa pine and aspen forests.
In the late 1940s, the Painted Desert Inn became a Harvey House when the Fred Harvey Company assumed management. Famed southwest architect Mary Colter played a role in the next phase of renovations and repair.
Three of six rooms at the inn served as guestrooms for travelers until 1950 when they all became quarters for Harvey Girls. These young ladies with strong moral character and work ethic served customers and ultimately became American legends.
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You can learn more about the history of Harvey Houses in our post Take the Train to Grand Canyon National Park.
Views from the Painted Desert Inn are stellar, as one would expect.
Taking its name from the Spanish word for “painted,” Pintado Point is the highest point along the driving route, and provides a 360° view of the Painted Desert.
Route 66 Alignment
A rusted-out 1932 Studebaker is perhaps the most-photographed manmade feature within the park. The remains of this classic car is part of an outdoor exhibit marking the alignment of Route 66.
The Mother Road was open through Petrified Forest National Park from 1926 through 1958, making it the only national park to hold this distinction.
A row of antique telephone poles traces the original route through the park, and a vintage car-themed concrete bench monument memorializes the historic road.
Interstate 40, the modern highway that replaced the Mother Road, parallels the original route in the distance.
If you zoom in the interactive Google map near the end of this post, you can see an aerial view of the original Route 66 in relation to I-40.
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Back on the park road, you will drive beneath the I-40 overpass (no access) and continue south to an archaeological site named Puerco Pueblo, where only a third of the ancient community has been excavated.
Between 1250 and 1380 AD, ancestral Puebloan people inhabited this location near the Puerco River. The ancient dwellings at this site are land-based like the ruins we toured at Wupatki National Monument, as opposed to cliff dwellings we witnessed at Montezuma Castle and Walnut Canyon National Monuments.
Petroglyphs adorn multiple rock faces along the perimeter of the prehistoric village. Pueblo inhabitants scratched images and symbols in black “desert varnish” to reveal lighter stone beneath.
The next stop on the route is an overlook for Newspaper Rock, where more than 650 petroglyphs dating back 2,000 years are displayed. There are stationary spotting scopes at this overlook, but binoculars are recommended to better view the ancient art.
The next section of road passes through The Tepees. Named for their shapes, this region of the Painted Desert has a lovely palette dominated by blues, rust, and white.
For visitors who do not hike, this stretch of road gives you a close-up view of the multi-layered rock formations.
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The Petrified Forest
I won’t teach a lesson on the origins of the Petrified Forest nor the process of petrification. There are brochures and books that explain the region’s natural history far better than I could.
I think it is important to know, however, that the Petrified Forest had its beginnings in the Late Triassic Period when all of Earth’s continents were connected in a super landmass called Pangaea. Some scientists believe the region that is now Arizona was located along the same parallels as Costa Rica and had a tropical climate.
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What sets Arizona’s petrified forest apart is that it contains the largest concentration of petrified wood on earth.
Note: There is an excellent full-color NPS publication entitled “Trees to Stone: How Wood Becomes Petrified” (2017), but I could not find a PDF available for download online. Readers may want to contact the park for a free copy.
You must turn off the main road and drive a 3.5 mile loop to experience the Blue Mesa. Prominent colors in this area of the park are blues, purples, grays, and browns.
At our first pullover on the loop, I was so engrossed in the rock formations that I did not even notice this was a transition zone.
Suddenly, my eyes were opened to countless petrified logs dotting the landscape, most hidden in plain sight, and others right under my nose.
In the Painted Desert, light is everything. Colors seem to move and change as the sun traverses the sky.
I think the shades and hues of the Blue Mesa are my favorite, with layers and textures not unlike a Missoni design.
For a closer look, take a 1-mile loop hike along the paved Blue Mesa Trail.
Back on the main road, our southbound drive continued. Petrified logs would increasingly become the dominant feature, and the multi-colored desert would become the backdrop.
The Agate Bridge is a novelty—a 110-foot long petrified log bridge over a gully.
The bridge was truly spectacular in turn-of-the-century photos as a standalone, but even then it was clear that it could not last.
A supportive concrete span was installed in 1917.
The Jasper Forest overlook is a great location for a sweeping view, with petrified logs as far as the eye can see.
A .75-mile paved accessible trail through the Crystal Forest is the perfect place to see many intact petrified trees and logs that appear to have been cleanly cut with chainsaws.
But appearances can be deceiving. Quartz crystals inside the logs produce clean fractures when pressured by forces of nature.
Hiking the Crystal Forest Trail in the morning or late afternoon puts the sun at an angle to best experience the sparkling colorful crystals.
Rainbow Forest Museum
The Rainbow Forest Museum also serves as the visitor center for the south entrance to the park.
Here, guests can learn more about the origins of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, view fossil exhibits and skeleton displays of prehistoric animals, and watch an 18-minute orientation film.
I chuckled reading apology letters from guilt-ridden park visitors who returned stolen pieces of petrified wood to the park.
One letter and petrified fragment from an adult was mailed from India in 1935.
Another letter from a child, accompanied by two pieces totaling 4.5 lbs. read:
“Please except my applogies. To ever it may concern. I am reterning this rock and the bad luck that follows it. Sence Ive had it my bike has been stolen. And my feet had blisters as big as my hand. And know my side hurts and might be a hurnea. And worst of all me and my girl friend are about to brake up. Please except my appolgies and thies pieces of petrified wood.”
National Parks Passport stamps are also available at this location.
Directly behind the Rainbow Forest Museum is the trailhead for the Giant Logs Trail.Take this .4-mile accessible paved loop to view some of the largest specimens in the park.
The focal point of the trail is “Old Faithful,” an intact log measuring 35 feet in length and almost 10 feet wide at its base. Its estimated weight is 44 tons.
The trailhead for the Long Logs Trail and the trail to the Agate House is located beyond the parking lot opposite the museum. The combined length of both trails is 2.6 miles round trip.
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We hope you will use this virtual drive through Petrified Forest National Park as a guide for planning a visit of your own.
The following travel tips will help you design an itinerary to make the most of your time in the park:
- You can drive through the park and view highlights at overlooks and pullovers within a couple of hours. The best way to experience the park, however, is to allocate at least five or six hours, or even better, a full day. This way you can hit all of the stops along the route and hike most, if not all, of the developed trails. Most of the park’s maintained trails are less than one mile in length, and the longest trail is two miles round trip.
- Be sure to pack a lunch and plenty of water if you will be spending more than a couple of hours at the park. The only restaurant in the park is located at the north entrance.
- The park is open daily (except Christmas) at varying times throughout the seasons.
- The current admission fee to Petrified Forest National Park is $20 per vehicle, which is why I always encourage visitors to purchase an annual National Parks pass for $80. The pass covers everyone in your vehicle and is valid for access to all federal lands in the United States.
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- Movie buffs will be interested to learn that scenes from The Grapes of Wrath (1940) starring Henry Fonda were shot on location in the Petrified Forest. Although not shot on location, The Petrified Forest (1936) starring Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart, is set at a roadside diner and gas station near the park.
- Federal law prohibits removal of petrified wood, fossils, and artifacts from the park. However, logs and products made from petrified wood gathered from private lands may be purchased at park gift shops and local shops outside the park.
- At least one shop near the south entrance to the park uses a deceptive, but comical marketing practice. Junkyard cars in the parking lot give the appearance of a busy enterprise.
There are several lodging options to consider when visiting Petrified Forest National Park, and the first option is location.
I would imagine most park visitors are roadtrippers, and overnight accommodations probably depend on where a park visit figures on your itinerary, where you will be the night before your visit, and where you are headed the evening following your visit.
You can find information for camping and RVs at the Petrified Forest NP website.
Our visit to Petrified Forest National Park was a day trip from Winslow, less than an hour away.
The first evening in Winslow we stayed at La Posada Hotel, a historical treasure designed by architect Mary Colter and the last of the Fred Harvey / Santa Fe Railway Hotels. If your Arizona itinerary takes you anywhere near Winslow (and it should), you must plan to stay at least one night at La Posada. (La Posada Hotel will be featured in detail in an upcoming Backroad Planet story about Winslow.)
The closest lodging to Petrified Forest National Park is in the town of Holbrook, located about 25 miles west of both park entrances.
Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip
Be sure to check out Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip for a loop itinerary through central and eastern regions of the state. To access specific segments of the route, navigate directly using the links below:
- Part 1: Phoenix to Tucson to Safford
- Part 2: Safford to Pinetop-Lakeside
- Part 3: Pinetop to Whiteriver to Greer
- Part 4: Pinetop to Salt River Canyon to Mesa
- Part 5: A Day Trip on the Arizona Apache Trail
More Arizona Posts on Backroad Planet
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever driven through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!