On our quest to see all of America’s National Parks, we knew we couldn’t to to the Grand Canyon without driving a couple more hours to see Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
We were totally surprised by this National Park! It has way more to offer than just petrified logs (although, of course, those are pretty cool!). From deserts to ancient forests to petroglyphs and Route 66, there is way more to Petrified Forest National Park than you might realize!
Here are our top tips for how to make the most of your visit to this Arizona destination. And you can totally see all of the highlights in just half a day! But if you’re willing to devote an entire day to exploring, you’ll see so much more.
1. Choose the Right Entrance
There are two entrances into Petrified Forest National Park. Painted Desert Visitor Center is off of I-40 at Exit 311. Rainbow Forest Visitor Center is located off of Highway 180. A single road goes through the entire National Park, connecting both Visitor Center entrances.
If you have little time, or are making plans according to the weather (extreme heat, rain, etc.), it is wise to choose the entrance that is closest to what you want to have the most time and energy to see.
If you want to see the Petrified Wood as quickly as possible, choose to enter through the Rainbow Forest entrance, which has a short trail located at the Visitor Center, as well as longer trails nearby.
To see the Painted Desert first, along with the Painted Desert Inn, choose the Painted Desert Visitor Center.
2. No Need to Backtrack
The road through the National Park is two-way. You can turn around at any point and go back through the way you came in. Or choose to exit through the other entrance.
3. See Petrified Wood Without Paying Admission
You can see petrified wood, buy park souvenirs and have a meal without paying an entrance fee into the National Park. The Painted Desert Visitor Center is located outside of the admission gate.
Educational exhibits geared towards kids showcase petrified logs. In fact, there’s even a petrified log by the picnic area.
Two gift shops sell souvenirs from the park, as well as Route 66 merchandise.
There is a cafe for a quick meal, too.
If you are short on time and can’t devote a few hours to going inside the park, this is a great introduction to what the National Park has to offer.
4. Short Visiting Hours
Unlike many National Parks, Petrified Forest closes its gates at night. Which means you can’t visit for sunset or sunrise photos, or make it a stop at the end of a travel day.
Visiting hours are generally from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you are inside the park by 5 p.m., you do have until 6:30 p.m. to drive through and enjoy scenic overlooks and some trails.
5. Be Sure You Have the Correct Time
A warning at the entrance gate to the park reminds visitors that the Arizona park does NOT observe Daylight Savings Time. From March to November, the time is one hour behind New Mexico and Navajo Nation time.
6. Stop on Route 66
Petrified Forest National Park is the only National Park to have a section of the original Route 66 inside its boundaries. Stop at the pull-off point to get your picture with an ancient car that would have driven the historic road.
While the car photo prop is not on the actual land where Route 66 crossed, if you look into the distance you will see a line of power line poles. Those poles are located near the original route where Route 66 would have been.
There is a Route 66 sign on the road before you get to the pull-out. There is also a photo opportunity with a car fender to take a picture behind.
7. Perfect Stop Along I-40
Looking for something interesting to do while driving I-40? A visit to the Petrified National Forest can take as little as an hour or a half day.
Which makes this short detour a beautiful and enriching way to stretch your legs and check off a National Park while driving. Especially if you are heading to the Grand Canyon nearby!
8. RV-Friendly Driving
The modern paved roads make this an easy National Park for RVs to drive through. Plenty of RV parking is available at the Visitor Centers, as well as picture overlooks.
9. Accessible National Park Views
As a drive-through park, it is easy to see most of the major sites from the road, or from the pull-outs. Most of the scenic overlooks are just a short and easy walk from the parking area.
Many trails are paved and barrier-free. Some have grades that do not meet ADA requirements.
10. A Short But Spectacular Trail
The Crystal Forest trail might be one of the easiest to walk, yet it has a major wow-factor. The 3/4 mile trail is paved and suitable for a stroller or wheelchair. This walk does have some inclines.
This trail offers one of the best ways to view the petrified logs. The crystalized logs are right next to the walkway and easy to see without any strenuous hiking.
11. Quick and Easy Trails
We’ve been to a lot of National Parks, and we have to say that Petrified Forest has some of the shortest, easiest trails we’ve seen! And that is great if you don’t have a lot of time or you don’t have the physical stamina for strenuous, long trails.
Though the trails are short, ranging from 0.3 miles to 2.6 miles, they offer plenty of stunning scenery to take pictures of!
Just a word of warning, though. There is no shade and the sun can be intense. Bringing a hat and sunscreen is still necessary even if you won’t be on the trail for long.
12. Don’t Bring Back Free Souvenirs
There are plenty of small pieces of petrified wood chips along the trails and walkways in the National Park. Do not pick these up to bring home!
First of all, it’s illegal. Second, if every visitor did this, there would soon not be anything left for future visitors to enjoy.
If you want souvenirs, petrified wood harvested off of National Park service property is available in the gift shops inside the National Park, as well as outside of the park.
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13. This Is Just Some of the Forest
Petrified Forest National Park only protects less than 20% of petrified wood in area. Most of the geological formations are on private land. That’s why you can find lots of petrified wood for sale and why you can legally buy it.
Petrified wood souvenirs sold inside the National Park have been ethically sourced from outside of the protected park.
14. Shopping Destinations
There are several gift shops inside the National Park.
At Painted Desert Visitor Center, you’ll find a small gift shop run by a non-profit organization that supports the National Park. You will also find a bigger gift shop, owned by a concessionaire, that sells National Park souvenirs as well as Route 66 merchandise.
At the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center, you’ll find gift shops, too.
But you might want different types of souvenirs that can’t be found there.
Then your next stop should be the huge gift shop just outside of the Rainbow Forest entrance. This place is really big (RV parking friendly) and of course offers tons of petrified wood to choose from. You might find lots of different types of stuff you’re not going to find at the stores inside the NPS.
15. Be Patient for the Petrified Wood!
If you are going through the Painted Desert entrance, it will be 15 miles until you see petrified wood. This must be such a confusing topic for visitors that the ranger actually made sure to point this out when we showed our National Parks pass at the entrance gate.
If you have the option of choosing from the two different entrances, and you want to see the namesake natural feature as soon as possible, then go through the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center to access the trails and pull outs as soon as possible.
16. Learning Laboratory
This park is alive with scientists studying the past. You can even watch park scientists performing their tasks at the Museum Demonstration Lab.
Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m., you can witness their work through large observation windows. Learn about fossils and artifacts. There is even a speaker phone to talk with the scientists behind the windows.
17. Amazing Architecture
We were really surprised that a famous architect designed the Painted Desert Visitor Center buildings. If you visit the destination, you’ll see that the buildings have a more mid-century modern, office building type of feel.
It’s the International Style of architectural design, with flat roofs, unadorned wall surfaces and asymmetrical facades. Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander were hired to design the NPS headquarters. Construction began in 1961 and the main buildings were dedicated in October 1963.
Walk around the courtyard area and you’ll definitely realize this is not your average NPS visitor center design. There are long, low flat buildings that house resources for National Park staff, scientists and visitors.
Across from the Museum Demonstration Lab, you’ll find a basketball court used by staff!
18. Grab a Meal
There’s only ONE PLACE at the entire National Park where you can buy prepared food. That’s in the cafe at Painted Desert Visitor Center.
Otherwise, you can buy prepackaged snacks in the visitor center gift shops.
If you got this awesome 60-piece CraveBox before your trip, it would be perfect to have in the car to snack on during road trips!
19. Do You Need to Go to the Bathroom?
There are very few facilities inside the National Park. Bathrooms are located at each of the Visitor Centers (which are 28 miles apart), plus the Painted Desert Inn and Puerco Pueblo. Plan accordingly!
20. Plan a Picnic
The picnic areas inside the park are quite large and spacious. In fact, they are more like pavilion areas at each of the visitor centers. I could imagine an entire group picnicking under the covered pavilions.
There are tables at Chinde Point and Painted Desert Inn to enjoy a quick meal, too.
21. Filler’ Up!
You’re going to need water when exploring the park. It’s hot and there is NO shade!
There’s no need to spend money on bottled water, though. Bring your own refillable water bottle. There are water refilling stations at the visitors centers and Painted Desert Inn. Plus, they even have a water bowls for pets on the refill centers!
22. Read All About It!
Did you know that there are petroglyphs inside Petrified Forest? We didn’t realize that until we visited the park.
There are two places where you can see the ancient carvings: Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock.
We personally liked Puerco Pueblo much better for seeing the petroglyphs. They are easier to see without needing a telescope. Plus, there is a small educational center that explains the history of the area.
Newspaper Rock might have more carvings, but they are very hard to see without the aid of a super zoom lens on your camera, or using the telescopes provided. However, we found it hard to use the viewing scopes because it was difficult to scan the horizon and find the carvings, plus the viewers don’t zoom in.
If you have your own binoculars, we suggest using them to view at Newspaper Rock.
23. Stop By the Inn
The Painted Desert Inn is a National Historic Landmark and should not be missed!
No, this is not a working inn anymore. You cannot stay in it. But you can tour the inn and take pictures.
The adobe architecture photographs really well! And there are tables for sitting, restrooms, water refill stations and air conditioning!
You’ll find some information about the classic Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis movie, The Petrified Forest. The movie doesn’t really have much to do with the National Park in our mind, but it’s associated with the destination just the same.
24. Don’t Overdo the Overlooks
There are four overlooks of the painted desert all in one location:
- Pintado Point
- Nizhoni Point
- Whipple Point
- Lacey Point
It’s a bit much. You can just choose one or two and be able to appreciate the scenery.
25. A Hard Start to a Gorgeous Trail
Blue Forest trail is absolutely stunning! You’ll be wandering through other-worldly landscapes of blue-tinged rocks that tower above you.
The beginning of the trail has a relatively steep incline. And you’ll probably be wondering whether or not it’s worth it. Yes, it’s steep, but then it becomes much more doable. You’ll be walking along a more gentle path with slight inclines for much of the trail.
26. See the Tepees
The Tepees pull out offers some really stunning views of the Blue Mesa area. We passed the pull-out thinking we’d have another chance to see something similar and we didn’t. Don’t miss this photos stop!
27. No Campgrounds
There are no RV camping campgrounds inside the park. And, no, you can’t pull off into a turn-out and spend the night, either, as the park closes at night.
If you do want to RV camp close to Petrified Forest National Park, we suggest the Petrified Forest KOA. See a review video below:
28. Camping By Permit Only
If you do want to go camping inside Petrified Forest National Park, you’ll have to do backcountry camping. It is only allowed with a permit. Plus, you will need to camp at least a mile away from the parking lot.
29. Hand Washing Tips
When you’re out in the middle of a sandy desert exploring nature, your hands can get pretty dirty. And if you’re planning on eating snacks or a picnic lunch while you’re in the park, chances are you’ll wish you had a way to get the dirt off of your hands.
30. Agates are Awesome!
The Agate House is at the end of one of the longest trails in Petrified Forest National Park. So you might be tempted to skip it, but don’t!
This amazing house is completely made from petrified wood log slices. It’s an architectural wonder and pretty cool to see in person.
31. Get Gas at the Visitor Center
This is one of the few National Parks that actually has a gas station.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center has a retro-looking gas station that looks like it’s from Route 66 days. You’ll find working gas pumps and a convenience store.
While the gas is more expensive here, the atmosphere and photo ops are pretty cool.
32. Pet Friendly National Park
This is one of the rare National Parks, where your pets are welcome. They are allowed on paved roads, trails and official Wilderness areas in the park. Whether you have a dog, a cat, or even a horse!
Keep in mind, only certified service animals are allowed in buildings inside the National Park.
33. Become a Bark Ranger
Your pet can become an honorary Bark Ranger for Petrified Forest National Park! Just ask at the Visitor Centers or entrance booths. After taking the pledge, your pooch can enjoy a special treat!
You can also purchase a special Bark Ranger tag if you’d like.
Check out our other National Park guides, as well: