Hello! Ashley here, with a blog filled with trip highlights, tips, photographic evidence of the dope sh*t I’m talking about, and a guide on how to spend your time in the area (there’s more than just the NP!).
Before I jump into our trip (scroll towards the bottom for that section), I wanted to explain what petrified wood is exactly, highlight why this area is so special, and where the park is located. This is all super interesting information, not boring details IMO!
About the Park
PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK IS 100% DOG-FRIENDLY!
DOGS ARE ALLOWED ANY WHERE PEOPLE ARE!!!
(except visitor’s centers, but DUH)
What Exactly is Petrified Wood?
Petrified wood (from the Greek root petro meaning “rock” or “stone”; literally “wood turned into stone”) is the name given to a special type of fossilized remains of terrestrial vegetation. It is the result of a tree or tree-like plants having completely transitioned to stone by the process of permineralization. All the organic materials have been replaced with minerals (mostly a silicate, such as quartz), while retaining the original structure of the stem tissue. Unlike other types of fossils which are typically impressions or compressions, petrified wood is a three-dimensional representation of the original organic material. The petrifaction process occurs underground, when wood becomes buried under sediment or volcanic ash and is initially preserved due to a lack of oxygen which inhibits aerobic decomposition. Mineral-laden water flowing through the covering material deposits minerals in the plant’s cells; as the plant’s lignin and cellulose decay, a stone mold forms in its place.
The brilliant colors in the petrified wood come mainly from three minerals. Pure quartz is white, manganese oxides form blue, purple, black, and brown, and iron oxides provide hues from yellow through red to brown.
trees fall, get covered in organic matter (sediment, volcanic ash) –> oxygen is cut off –> trees absorb minerals from organic matter –> mineral rich water flows through the covered material and into tree matter –> the plant cells die off –> what is left is a stone mold.
Favorite Factoid About the Area:
Scientists believe that two hundred million years ago the area where the Petrified Forest National Park lies today was located at the latitude of Costa Rica. It was a rainforest and part of the super-continent Pangaea. When trees were downed they accumulated in rivers and were periodically buried by volcanic ash. Water dissolved the ash and transferred it into the logs, forming quartz crystals and petrifying the wood. Eventually the land moved north to its present location.
How cool and wild is that to think about? Here’s a map with the park and Costa Rica shown using hearts, so you can see what a large shift that would have been.
Why is This Area so Special?
Over 13,000 years of human history can be found in the park, including over 800 archaeological and historic sites. Read a short description of how those Native Americans lived in the area throughout history here.
Important Reminder: we are lucky to be able to visit and explore this land When visiting Cultural Sites, it is best to treat it like you are at a museum. Get a refresher on how to Leave No Trace here.
Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but pictures. Kill nothing but time.
Park Location + What Else is Around:
Petrified Forest National Park (PFNP) is located in Eastern Arizona. The park has 2 visitor centers, Painted Desert Visitors Center on the North side and the Rainbow Forest Visitors Center + Museum in the South, with the two sides being divided by Interstate 40.
Flagstaff, AZ- 1hr 45 minutes West
Phoenix, AZ- 3hrs 20 minutes South
Cortez, CO + Four Corners Region- 3 hrs North
Closest Town for Supplies + Gas:
Holbrook, AZ- 20 minutes West on Interstate 40
Holbrook has gas stations with rest areas, grocery stores (Safeway is the big one), dollar stores, and auto part shops. Holbrook is a beautiful quiet community, help keep it that way when you visit.
This area is centrally located to a TON of fun side trips and adventures, so if you have a week+ consider venturing away from the park for some added exploration. Here are some of my absolute favorites within a 3 hour(ish) drive:
Sedona- 2.25 hours- you could spend a whole week just exploring these incredible red rocks + vortexes. Click Here for more info.
Tempe- 3.25 hours- tons to see and do here! The Beach Park, Tempe Zoo, Botanical Garden, and so much more.
Grand Canyon– 3 hours- 1 of the 7 wonders of the world- need I say more?
The park has no developed campgrounds- but don’t freak out! There are still some great options right outside of the park, keep reading.
*If you like the sound of free dry camping:
At the South entrance, there are 2 gift shops on either side of the road.
On the East side is Crystal Forest Museum + Gifts and they have free dry camping, BUT you must be self-contained (that means you can poop in your vehicle). If you didn’t know, WAG bags count as being self-contained and having them on-board is criteria for staying on this land. The good news is, if you can wait until the park opens at 8AM, you can go to the visitor’s center and use their facilities and save the WAG bags for a real emergency.
On the West side is Petrified Forest Gift Shop and they have camping with 30amp hookups available for I think $5/night. They do not have a bathroom, water, or trash though, so you will need to come prepared for that at this location as well.
If you’re like, I NEED a bathroom in the morning but I also NEED to free camp, I got a good option for you:
the Maverik Gas Station at mile post 286 off of I-40.
It’s safe, it’s quiet (ish), they are open 24 hrs, clean bathrooms, hot coffee in the morning, and they have a picnic bench for cooking!
We stayed here for 3 nights while we were visiting the park.
*If you like the sound of camping with amenities:
There is a KOA in Holbrook that has cabins, RV, and tent sites available, along with a whole host of other amenities.
*If camping isn’t your thing:
Holbrook has a few of chain hotels, check the current rates here.
Backcountry camping is allowed in the park after obtaining a free permit from one of the 2 visitor’s centers during operating hours. So if you’re planning on tent camping anyway, this could be a really cool way to stay in the park overnight, have nothing but wide open skies for star-gazing, and beat the requirement for being self-contained.
Our Adventures in the Park
To be perfectly honest, we visited PFNP on a whim after checking out Canyon de Chelly, and weren’t really sure what to expect. We arrived at 4:45PM and the park closes at 5PM, so that was kind of funny, but we got just enough info to stoke our curiosity, and we went to the gas station for a good night’s rest.
The next morning, I was up before sunrise of course, so we hit the road and drove to the south entrance of the park. We had to wait for the gate to open, so we hung out at the gift shop campground and made breakfast- definitely recommend trying this if you’re an early rise- sunrise was so beautiful to watch from there, seeing the sun hit the giant logs of petrified wood and give them this perfect golden hue is something I still can’t get out of my mind.
When the park gates opened, we were the first ones in- which is like always a goal of mine for some weird reason LOL. Our first stop was at the Rainbow Forest Visitor’s Center + Museum to get all the information on the history, trails, and things to do. It was really cool to learn all about the park history, see the fossils of the giants that used to roam the area, and watch the video they have playing with even more good info. While in the visitor’s center, I of course stamped my National Parks + Monuments Passport (my favorite way to capture memories for free!!) and they have the BEST stamps! Since the park has 2 visitor’s centers, they each have their own stamps, so I do recommend stamping at both!
While there, we borrowed one of their packets with all of their “off the beaten path” hikes. Out of all the parks we have been to, I have never seen a guide like this! They have all their unmarked route-finding trails listed, with way-points, maps, and photos to aid in your search. Such a fun way to get off the paved trails, away from people, and see a whole different side of the park you couldn’t see from pavement. We used the packet for 2 back country hikes and would have done more had the rain not started! One bummer about the backcountry hikes is, if it rains, all the mud turns to clay and it makes hiking around nearly impossible.
The first Off the Beaten Path hike we did, we ended up getting lost a few times. Even with the photos (okay, they didn’t really help everything looks the same after a while LOL), and topographic map, we still had trouble finding where we were going, so make sure you are confident in your route finding skills, as there will be no one around to ask or help you find your way. Getting lost in this vast landscape is not ideal, so heed that warning before setting out. You’re on your own out there! While we were on this hike though, we stumbled upon petrified wood chips and the sight and sound was AMAZING. They look like playground wood chips, but when you touch them they’re thin rocks that make the most beautiful clinking sounds when moved. When we finally made it back to the van, we looked up at the sky and saw a perfect circle made out of a rainbow!! We stood there stunned at what we were witnessing.
The thing I wasn’t prepared for the most, was just how much petrified wood there was every where. Every where you look, there’s giant logs, fragmented pieces, wood chips, and just the most stunning colors I have ever seen in nature. They say there is petrified wood all over Arizona, but nothing as concentrated as this area. Epicly spectacular is the only way to describe it.
The next day, we drove all around the park and did all of their paved/accessible trails. Though most of them were short and took less than a hour, they were still worth stopping and seeing.
One of Sean’s favorite stops was probably the Log Jam area (above) and the Agate House- a replica of a house made out of petrified wood that was once inhabited by Native Americans in the area. Check out the video below to see it for yourself.
It’s hard to find the words to describe what this petrified wood looks and feels like in person, it’s definitely one of those things you have to experience yourself to truly feel the age, time, and history in small sliver of stoney-wood.
After we checked out all the hikes and pull-offs on the south side, the park was going to be closing soon so we decided to head to Holbrook to make dinner at a little park we found on google maps. After dinner, we went to the gas station for bedy-bye time, we had a big day planned for tomorrow and I could hardly sleep.
Every week, the park has 3 permits available for a special area called the Devil’s Playground. While we were visiting, the day they came available was on Wednesday’s (call ahead to see what day they renew) and they are on a first come, first serve basis and can only be picked up at the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center. I was born for that. LOL. I’m not gonna lie, we were the first one at the gate at 7AM and we were still the only ones there when they opened at 8am, but I still felt the rush to get there and be the first one at the door. I’m weird, we’ve been through this already. Unfortunately, in all the excitement of the morning, I didn’t notice that it had been raining all night and was still drizzling. The road that you park on to reach the Devil’s Playground was impassable to 2WD when wet, and that means the long hike out there would be through clay- ugh. So even though we signed the permit and read the rules, we had to make the tough choice to skip it this time and hand the permit back to the ranger. We were mega bummed. The forecast called for rain for days so we decided it was going to be our last day in the park before we continue south for drier and warmer weather.
The North side of the park is so unique and different than the South side, our disappointment from not getting our permit was quickly dissolved as we stood on the edge of the Painted Desert. Beauty was in every direction, and thanks to the clouds, the sun wasn’t able to over-expose the colors of the badlands so we really got to enjoy the colors and the not-so-subtle changes in the landscape.
All in all, it was a great experience and we cannot wait to make it back to the park! There is still so much to see and do, even just considering the Off the Beaten Path trails we still have to hit. And don’t get me started on that damn permit. I’m not sure when we will get back, but it’s definitely on my priority list for the year.
Here’s a list of my “MUST SEE’S” if your time in the park is limited:
- Drive the whole park– it is setup so you can see all 8 points in less than 2 hours.
- Blue Mesa– all the rangers will tell you this is their favorite place to hike around. Park at the top and hike down into the Blue Hills and feel like a tiny little ant.
- Long Logs + the Agate House– take the hike through the ancient log jam and end up at the incredible Agate House.
- Giant Logs– behind the Rainbow Forest are giant logs and a path that takes you all throughout the area with sweeping views and beautiful petrified wood.
- The Agate Bridge– was cool but kind of under-whelming, I’d stop here if you have extra time and skip it if you’re limited.
- Puerco Pueblo– an incredibly well maintained ruin of a large communal living space…Ashley’s favorite!
- Ask the Visitor’s Center for information on any guided hiking and experiences available, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to hike around with a very knowledgeable ranger who will tell you everything you want to know.
Final Thoughts + Photos
No matter how you visit the Petrified Forest National Park, you won’t be disappointed. This park has something for everyone, the adventurer, the weekend warrior, those with dogs, those living on the road, non-hikers, history-lovers, and everyone in between. We were truly blown away by our experience and time spent inside. Below are some pictures from our adventures, but trust me when I say, they do it no justice! Some things you just have to see for yourself.
I hope you found this guide both helpful and inspirational to get out on your next adventure! This park was a good reminder that sometimes the best gems are the ones we find on accident! I am always studying Google Maps when we are some where new, looking for anything that sounds interesting, exciting, adventurous, or just piques my interest! I have found a ton of favorite places by doing that, I highly recommend you try it on your next roadtrip.
Have any questions leftover that I skipped? Shoot me a message on Instagram: @TheBeirnes or Post a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer any questions or address any concerns you have for your trip to Petrified Forest National Park.