Kaleidoscope Colors of Crystalized Trees Shine in This Trippy National Park
It’s like Badlands meets a rainbow forest meets a desert.
Despite having a name that sounds like an outdoor haunted house, the only thing to fear about Petrified Forest National Park is the FOMO you’ll have from overlooking this underrated Arizona gem. Unlike other tree-centric parks in the National Park System, this is a remote desert terrain with behemoth boulder-sized logs scattered across the land. In fact, the name “forest” is a misnomer in this arid land of wind-swept badlands, fossilized bones, faded petroglyphs, and petrified wood, twinkling in the Arizona sun.
Located in the sleepy northeast part of the state, this is the only national park in America that’s literally bisected by Route 66, making it the most quintessential road trip park you never knew you needed. Plus, being overshadowed by that other Arizona national park, Petrified Forest is comparatively quieter—with about 4 million fewer visitors than the Grand Canyon—but it’s especially enchanting. With a dusty, barren backdrop reminiscent of a scene from Cars, this 221,390-acre park is a sleeper hit for geologists, paleontologists, and tree-huggers—despite the fact that the resident trees have been dead for 200 million years.
Whereas once mighty trees stood as tall as sequoias in tropical, dinosaur-dwelling jungles, they’ve long since succumbed to the powers of Mother Nature. Preserved in time, these trees were felled by raging rivers hundreds of millions of years ago, then buried under sediment, and slowly crystalized by volcanic ash and silica.
Nowadays, remnants of Arizona’s tropical past have long since dwindled, leaving behind gigantic petrified logs that have been almost entirely transformed into solid quartz. Serious desert bling, the logs get their kaleidoscopic shimmer from iron, carbon, and manganese, imbuing them tints of purple and royal green.
It may not look like much at first, but this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it park is home to one of the largest collections of petrified wood on Earth, perfectly preserved relics of a prehistoric era where rivers once raged and terrifying reptilians once prowled. Composed of several smaller “forests,” like Rainbow Forest and Painted Desert, the park is teeming with lustrous logs strewn across badlands and buttes. Home to easy hiking trails, Jurassic-level fossils, and ancient petroglyphs, Petrified Forest is like a road trip time capsule to a bygone epoch. Here’s what to know about visiting.
When to visit Petrified Forest National Park
Unlike Grand Canyon National Park, which sees more than 4 million annual visitors, Petrified Forest sees a scant 600,000 visitors each year, making this one low-key park where you don’t really need to worry about crowds, traffic, or a lack of trailhead parking spaces. The only thing you really need to contend with when mapping out a stop at Petrified Forest is weather. This is Arizona after all—a state whose scorching forecasts are decidedly not low-key.
Thanks to its high elevation, around 5,800 feet, the park isn’t as searingly hot as much of the rest of the state, but July and August can still see temps soar well into the 90s. And due to the fact that you’re that much closer to the sun, you’ll feel the burn. This being the desert, things cool off dramatically after sunset, plummeting down to the low 50s even at the summer peak. While summer is prime time for the park, your best bet to beat the heat is to arrive early—unlike most national parks, Petrified Forest has designated park hours of 8 am–6 pm, and there’s a literal gate on the main park road (keep in mind that Arizona does not observe daylight savings time).
Although the park sees very little precipitation, July and August are the months when afternoon storms are most likely, which would be refreshing if it weren’t for the fact that rain turns the sandy landscape into one big slippery mud pit. Winter gets shockingly cool by most Arizona standards, with highs in the mid-40s. Spring can be windy but dry, and fall still gets some of those tapered thunderstorms, but with comfortably cooler temperatures.
The ultimate road trip park
With Route 66 conveniently weaving right through the park, making Petrified Forest the only national park with a section of the Americana highway, this is one park that’s especially perfect for road trips.
The main artery is the Park Road that meanders for 28 miles from the Painted Desert Visitor Center in the north to the Rainbow Forest Museum on the southern end. Not only straightforward and easy, the road is one of the most epic and enchanting scenic drives in any national park, with numerous pullouts to park and gawk. You’ll also find several short and easy hiking trails going from the lookout spots heading into the quiet wilderness. Of the park’s seven designated trails, none are more than three miles, and they’re all dog-friendly.
Start with a stop at the visitor center, where exhibits and an introductory film show you how these once-soaring trees transformed into the bejeweled boulders they are today. Driving south, prime pit stops include Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock for petroglyphs and indigenous lore.
You’ll also find must-do trails like Blue Mesa, which is a prime example of quality over quantity—a short paved loop begins atop a ridge of blue-tinted badlands before descending into the desert dotted with shimmering petrified wood. For even more wow, stop at the Giant Logs Trail, home to the largest fallen trees in the park, including Old Faithful, a log so large that it’s as wide as an RV.
While designated trails are sparse, visitors are able to venture into the park’s 50,000 acres of backcountry wilderness, hiking and camping wherever your heart desires (as long as you’re at least a mile from the road).
Channel your inner Laura Dern
Sure, you could go see the new Jurassic World movie, or you can just live your best Jurassic life in Petrified Forest (without the risk of being chased by velociraptors), home to real-deal fossils and some intimidatingly epic history.
When these trees once stood some 200-feet tall, in a sub-tropical wilderness that looks nothin like present-day Arizona, the region was located further toward the Equator. It once swarmed with dinos so fierce and huge—including crocodile-like nightmare creatures—they would make the Jurassic Park franchise look like a Nickelodeon cartoon. Of the park’s insightful museums, the Rainbow Forest Museum at the southern end contains fossils and exhibits that tell the story of the region’s Jurassic-level past.
About 200 million years later, the “forest” was once again abuzz with new residents. Evidence exists of indigenous people living here for millennia, leaving behind preserved remnants like rock-carved petroglyphs at sites like Newspaper Rock.
To delve even deeper into Native American lore, the Puerco Pueblo Trail is a hop and skip to a once-thriving village that stood around the year 1300, comprised mostly of wood and mud. The most intact of the park’s bygone villages, Puerco Pueblo still has multiple open-air rooms anchored by an inner plaza that once served as a communal, ceremonial gathering place.
Where to stay near Petrified Forest National Park
Around here, lodging is even more sparse than the hiking trails. Aside from camping in the primitive backcountry, there are no campgrounds in the park, and staying overnight in an RV or otherwise is not allowed—the gates on the Park Road close at 6 p.m., and that means it’s time to go. To camp, you’ll need to acquire a wilderness permit, which is free, from either visitor center on the day you plan on roughing it.
Outside of the park, campgrounds—for both RVers and tents—can be found at nearby national park sites like Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, as well as in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and state parks like Blue Water State Park, Homolovi State Park, and Lyman Lake State Park.
For hotels, the nearest town to Petrified Forest is Holbrook, where you’ll find all your run-of-the-mill options at mostly affordable rates. Unlike some national parks, where nearby restaurant options are surprisingly abundant, Petrified Forest is not a foodie paradise. Holbrook is comprised mostly of chains, save for a few straightforward mom-and-pop spots like Tom & Suzie’s Diner and Sombreritos Mexican Food. But you’re road tripping here for the fossilized trees, after all, not the haute cuisine.