Insider's Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park.
Petrified Forest National Park. TLPOSCHARSKY
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The faded colors that dominate Petrified Forest National Park reflect centuries of erosion that have weathered the landscape into subdued hues of Arizona reds, oranges, and blues. Defying this trend are the marvelous samples of petrified wood strewn throughout the parched land. Unlike the dusty, powdery mounds of color in the Painted Desert, petrified wood is a glossy outlier. Brilliant, deep crimson patterns flourish in these stone-hard remnants, accented by sunset-orange rings and seafoam green strokes. Eons ago, ancient Arizona was part of a subtropical region and rich with aquatic life. Fast moving rivers trapped both flora and fauna in sediment, preserving a wealth of fossils as well as the wood husks of the namesake forest.

Fast forward 225 million years to see that time has drastically altered the land, changing the humid climate to barren, arid scrubland. The rivers and waterways are gone, only briefly resurrected in the form of the flash floods that occasionally scour the sandy washes. Yet, life sustains. The 218,553 acres that make up this unique national park were initially set aside in 1962. Though the moniker “Petrified Forest National Park” champions the most impressive relics in the area, there is much more to see beyond the hardened flora. The heavily eroded hills of the Painted Desert feature symmetrical stripes in muted colors, fossils are locked in stone outcrops, petroglyphs carved by ancient hands decorate remote rocks, and recent historical archives from Route 66 add to the attractions in the park. While the geology and history exemplify faded glory, the modern visitor will find plenty of amazing aspects to enjoy in this ever-changing region.

Classic Adventures

The beautiful colors of petrified wood.
The beautiful colors of petrified wood. Chris M. Morris

The Painted Desert Visitor Center and Rainbow Forest Museums are the first places to check out when coming to the park. There are detailed explanations of the natural and human history, including the amazing process of how petrified wood turned from organic material to stone. Millions of years ago, rivers deposited minerals into the cells of organisms and they hardened, leaving behind the beautiful arrays of color in the ruins of a long lost forest (a process known as permineralization ). Stepping outside of the visitor’s center offers a look at several samples of the wood, along with a short (less than a mile), signed trail that overlooks some of the colorful mounds of sand. Rainbow Forest has access to Giant Logs, Long Logs, and Agate House Trails, showcasing more of the wood in the wild as well as the dwellings of ancient civilizations.

It cannot be stressed enough to leave behind samples of petrified wood. Even with strict regulations forbidding theft, the park service estimates more than 12 tons of petrified wood is pilfered each year. Please do not take any souvenirs from the land, no matter how small they are.

Despite having short walking trails, there’s a lot of information to enjoy in these two visitor’s destinations. The artistry of petrified wood is truly mesmerizing. For those curious  to know if man-made petrified wood has ever been made, it has, but it lacks the random beauty of natural wood.

Secrets of the Park

A smattering of petrified wood in the Jasper Forest.
A smattering of petrified wood in the Jasper Forest. Andrew Kearns

While the landscape beyond the visitor centers and museums may seem barren, there are many secrets to uncover in the park. Driving from trailhead to trailhead happens naturally as you explore the park, so stopping as you go to wander on some of the hiking trails beyond the main attractions is definitely worth it. Note that it can get blazing hot and dry in the summer (over 100° on a regular basis, so bring lots of water!) so hiking in the autumn, winter, and spring is the most comfortable—though most trails are short enough to endure the summer heat for a short time. Be warned if you plan a winter visit, the record cold is -37° and winds can whip up over 50 mph!

One of the most impressive hikes, especially at sunset, is the Jasper Forest Hike. A 2.5 mile out-and-back trek, this was the first petrified forest discovered by western settlers. Great blocks of petrified wood sit in the desert sand, including delicately balanced cubes mottled with vermilion and blue-grey minerals. At sunset, colors transform into deep ruby-red and orange, creating a dreamlike ambiance as the earth begins to cool for the night.

Onyx Bridge is a slightly rugged, 4-mile round-trip hike that starts from the Painted Desert Inn and ventures out to a large, 30-foot tall Triassic era conifer tree turned to stone. The tree is mostly intact and is estimated to be over 200 million years old. Finally, the Blue Forest Trail is a 3-mile out-and-back that highlights the impressive, striated mounds of the Painted Desert. The grey, red, tan, and black stripes that decorate the hills are especially photogenic in winter light.

Immerse Yourself

The painted hills at Petrified Forest National Park.
The painted hills at Petrified Forest National Park. Kimble Young

There are no overnight facilities in the park itself, but for the adventurous, backpacking is allowed in the park. This is only allowed in the wilderness portion of the park (which is separate from the fee area) and you must have a permit. Even more interesting, horseback riding is allowed in the wilderness areas and equestrian backcountry explorers can even go camping with their horses! Note that that there is not a drop of water in the park, so you must bring in all your own for yourself and your horses. Autumn and early winter are the best times of the year to explore the backcountry in this fashion. Most adventures start at the Painted Desert Inn and many routes use a combination of trail and off-trail access. Backpacking offers a great way to see some of the remote petroglyphs, fossil walls, and other secrets hidden in the park.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • Don’t take any samples of petrified wood.

  • Seriously, don’t. It’s very easy to pocket a little piece and think you are doing no harm, but with over 800,000 annual visitors, this mentality will quickly deplete the park of its namesake resource.

  • Make sure to pack in enough water, even for short day hikes. This is an extremely dry landscape and people have been known to get heat exhaustion, even on the modest visitor center trails.

  • A lot of rugged wildlife exists in the park, from snakes to coyotes. Don’t feed them and try not to stress them if you encounter them.

  • People sometimes forget the altitude—the park is located at 5,800 feet above sea level. If you’re feeling a little winded, it could be the thinner air.

  • And once more… don’t poach any wood from the park.

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