Petrified wood pieces showcase gorgeous colors in the Rainbow Forest of Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona

9 Things To Know About Petrified Forest In Arizona And How To Visit It

Petrified Forest, protected as a National Park, lies in one of the most desolate areas of Arizona. Yet, in the past several years, it became one of the popular destinations in the state. No wonder, since the high-desert National Park of Arizona features a unique landscape, where nature, geology, archaeology, and paleontology meet.

1. Now in the Desert of Arizona, Petrified Forest Was Once An Ancient Rainforest

When driving through Petrified Forest National Park, it’s hard to imagine this landscape as a lush rainforest. Yet, the high desert’s stark beauty, sweeping views of colorful rock formations have once home to giant trees and ferns, prehistoric reptiles and dinosaurs, and a large system of rivers.

The Painted Desert in the Petrified Forest was once a prehistoric tropical rainforest.
It’s hard to imagine this desolate land as a prehistoric tropical rainforest.

Once upon a time, during the dawn of the dinosaurs, this part of the Arizona desert was a tropical rainforest. Standing in the desolate land now, it’s hard to picture it. But clues of it are all over the place.

Huge trunks of trees lay on the ground as if they fell yesterday. On closer examination, though, you realize they are rock. Ancient trees petrified over millions of years ago.

In the Late Triassic Period, about 225 million years ago, this tropical landscape was home to ancient dinosaurs and lush vegetation, including giant trees. The area was green and full of life.

Such a long time brought changes to the earth’s surface though (even without human intervention). Continents moved, the climate changed, dinosaurs disappeared, river systems dried out. What remained of the once lush tropical forest got buried by layers and layers of dirt and sediment.

But in the dry desert of Arizona, more changes in the earth’s surface along with wind and water peeled back these layers. Now, if we know where to look, we can find fossilized remains of plants, animals, and giant pieces of petrified logs from the ancient forest.

2. You Can Still Find Fossil Records of the Times of the Dinosaurs There

Petrified Forest National Park is one of the few places on the planet where we can find fossil records from the Late Triassic Period.

This lifeless, barren, and deserted land is a clear record of our earth’s natural history. The fossils found here, along with millions-of-years-old petrified wood, offer clues to an image of what earth looked like before and during the time of the dinosaurs.

Paleontologists and geologists are studying the fossils in the park, to reconstruct the late Triassic period of Earth’s history. They found and analyzed hundreds of species of plant and animal fossils in the park, and they are still finding more.

The scientific value of the Petrified Forest lies in its clear record of the earth’s history. But most of us visit it for its stark beauty.

3. The Petrified Forest Is In The Painted Desert

Layers upon layers of different pastel colors delight the senses in every direction I look from the viewpoint. We’ve been driving through the Painted Desert for hours during our first road trip this year. But watching the gorgeous landscape from the car as we drove through it didn’t compare with actually stopping to take it all in.

The Painted Desert from the viewpoint in the Petrified Forest National Park
View of the Painted Desert from the park.

Though it was still hot, I walked over to the viewpoint. Colorful rock formations of every hue, from deep purples, pinks, reds, oranges, and greys dot the landscape in front of me. As often as we drive through, these amazing colors of the desert always leave me in awe, with a feeling of stepping into a painting.

The Arizona heat didn’t let me linger too much, though. Soon I got back into the car and we continued our drive through this gorgeous, though desolate landscape.

The next viewpoint, Tawa Point, features a trail, and we stopped once again for the views, while also walking a short distance. Too hot for the full hike, we resolved to stop at each of the viewpoints through the park.

Coming through the North Entrance, the first seven viewpoints featured the gorgeous Painted Desert. It took us a while until we got to an area filled with petrified wood. And before we got there, we stopped at the prehistoric ruins of the ancient Pueblo people.

4. The Park Is Also Home To Archaeological Sites and Petroglyphs

Ancestral Puebloans made their homes in and around Petrified Forest, too. There are over a thousand archaeological sites in the park, ranging from one-room shelters to pueblos with up to a hundred rooms.

We stopped at Puerto Pueblo, the remains of the homes of the Ancestral pueblos dating from between 1250 and 1380 AD. The afternoon sun was arching over when we got there, so I didn’t mind walking the short, 0.3-mile loop trail to revisit the ruins and petroglyphs.

Puerco Pueblo Ruins

The village was on the banks of the Puerco River, a large drainage (not a river in the true sense) bisecting the park. The pueblo had about a hundred rooms, and at its peak, around the year 1300, it was home to about 200 people. The low walls of the one-story high village are still visible from the trail, along with a few petroglyphs by the riverbank.

Petroglyphs at Puerco Pueblo
The petroglyphs at Puerco Pueblo

The next stop features a larger concentration of petroglyphs near each other. Newspaper Rock got its name from the concentration of ancient glyphs on a rock; It showcases over 650 ancient petroglyphs on the faces of a few large rocks.

The Ancestral Puebloans created these petroglyphs, too, over a few generations. Some of them lived in the near Puerto Pueblo, though many generations contributed to this “newspaper” in the desert. Modern Native tribes helped interpret these markings. They include family and clan symbols, calendar events, migratory routes, and spiritual meanings.

Newspaper Rock is accessible by a short walk from the parking lot, where viewfinders help discern the petroglyphs.

5. One Of The Longest Petrified Log In The World Is In The Park

Past these archaeological sites, on the southern side of the park, are the areas with more concentrated petrified wood pieces.

Our first stop along these sites was the Agate Bridge. The bridge is really a 110-feet long petrified log. In recent years they added a cement bridge under it, to keep it from collapsing.

View of the Agate Bridge

6. The Park Is Also Home To Large Concentrations Of Petrified Wood Pieces

Jasper Forest has a large concentration of petrified tree trunk pieces, scattered around the area.

But my favorite spot was Crystal Forest, where I could walk the paved, mile-long trail among petrified logs. By the time we got to this area, the sun was lower on the horizon, so the extreme heat of midday and early afternoon in the desert has passed. The trail is an easy loop among hundreds of ancient logs.

Scattered petrified log pieces in Crystal Forest

At first glance, they seem trunks of trees fallen or cut decades ago. At a closer look, the bright colors of the rock become evident at the crosscut. the fossilized tree trunks are now quartz stones. They look like giant crystals, their cut sections glittering in the desert sun.

I love their colors, the bright streaks of dark reds, oranges, purples and whites.

6. The Park Offers Learning Opportunities About The Process Of These Ancient Logs Turning Into Rock

Over 200 million years ago, when this desert was a lush rainforest, these trees fell into the ancient rivers crisscrossing the land. Over time, they got buried deeper and deeper, under layers of land and sediment.

Deep underground, minerals seeped into the porous wood, replacing the organic material and crystalized over the span of hundreds of thousands of years. In the cracks of the wood, gorgeous crystals of clear and smoky quartz, purple amethyst, yellow citrine formed.

These rocks would have stayed underground, and we would never be able to see them, except for the rise of the Colorado Plateau about 60 million years ago. As the land rose, these fossilized tree logs came to the surface.

But the quartz crystals in the petrified wood are hard and brittle, so they broke under the stress the logs were under while the land was rising. The way the crystal broke, creating clean fractures, make the logs seem like they were cut evenly with a chainsaw.

This sign explains how the ancient tree logs turned into petrified wood.
The sign on the trail explains how the ancient tree logs turned into petrified wood.

These fractures showcase the most beautiful areas of the crystals, with all their gorgeous colors.

A petrified log showcasing all the colors of its crystals
A broken petrified log in Crystal Forest, showcasing the colors of its crystals.

7. The Petrified Logs Are Laying On The Ground. Here Is Why:

The logs in the Petrified Forest did not fossilized standing up, so in reality they do not form a forest the way we think of one. The logs were carried by the extensive river system in this area. In some places, they formed log jams, like you might see in larger rivers of the Pacific Northwest for example.

Jasper Forest, Crystal Forest, and other areas with a high concentration of petrified logs were the sites of these log jams in the rivers.

8. 80% Of The Petrified Wood In The Area Is Outside the Park

Petrified Forest National Park is home to only about 20% of petrified wood in northeastern Arizona. You’ll find petrified wood outside the park, and you can buy some from different shops that collect it from private land.

The fossilized wood in Petrified Forest National park is protected, so no one can remove even the smallest piece. But outside of the park, it is legal to collect them.

The gift shops in the park and its vicinity offer different objects made of petrified wood, including bookends, jewelry, even small furniture pieces. All these pieces showcase the gorgeous colors of the rocks. Be aware though that petrified wood is extremely heavy, especially compared to its live counterpart.

9. Plant And Animal Life Might Be Scarce, But Still Exists In The Petrified Forest

View from the Crystal Forest Loop Trail

Though it’s far from being a rainforest, the natural environment in Petrified Forest is just as fascinating. The Painted Desert badlands might not allow vegetation to grow on but offer a colorful and gorgeous landscape.

Along with smooth colorful hills, you’ll find mesas and buttes, interesting rock formations, and even some hoodoos, though in different colors than the famous ones in Bryce Canyon.

But plant and animal life also exists in the desolate Petrified Forest. The park is home to a grasslands ecosystem, with grasses, shrubs, and even a few trees. if you visit in April or May, you can even see wildflowers here.

You’ll see lizards and birds, maybe even a snake. Mammals are rare to spot since most are either nocturnal or come out at dusk when the park is already closed. If you are there early or stay just until closing time, you might see mule deer, cottontail and jackrabbits, coyotes, or pronghorns.

How to Visit Petrified Forest National Park?

Stretching for miles on both sides of Interstate 40, Petrified Forest National Park features loads of petrified wood and gorgeous views of The Painted Desert.

The 28-mile long Main Park Road offers access to all the viewpoints and attractions in the park. Two visitor centers — the Painted Desert Visitor Center on the north and the Rainbow Forest Museum to the south — offer exhibits, books and gifts, limited food service and restrooms. Besides the Visitor Centers, you’ll find viewpoints and trailheads worth stopping for.

The closest towns, Holbrook and Winslow, both offer easy access to the park, and a few hotels and restaurants, making either of them a desirable gateway town.

Though a bit farther, Flagstaff is an even better choice as a gateway town, since it offers more of a selection of amenities. If using Flagstaff as a headquarters to visit Petrified Forest National Park, you can include Walnut Canyon into the trip.

Though it would make a long day, the park is even close enough to Phoenix for a day trip destination.

But the best way to experience Petrified Forest National Park is to camp there. Though the park doesn’t offer developed campgrounds, if you have a tent, you can camp in a few designated areas.

The views of the night sky makes this camping trip worthwhile, since Petrified Forest National Park is one of the best dark sky places of Arizona.

FAQ About Visiting Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona

Where is Petrified Forest National Park?

Petrified Forest National Park is northeastern Arizona, in the Painted Desert.

How to get to Petrified Forest National Park?

The park is along Historic Route 66, parallel to I-40. Entering it from the north side, take exit 311 off I-40. The south side of the park is off US-180, 21 miles from Holbrook.

Is there an entrance fee?

The entrance fee for Petrified Forest National Park is $25 per vehicle (in 2023). However, since it is part of the National Parks System, I recommend using one of the National Parks passes, especially since only in Arizona you’d have enough opportunities to use it to make it worthwhile. My family uses the America the Beautiful yearly pass.

What is the weather like in Petrified Forest National Park?

For visitors not accustomed to the high deserts of Arizona, the weather in Petrified Forest National Park might come as a shock, especially the fluctuations of temperature from mid-day to nighttime.

It might not be as hot as in the lower desert areas, like Phoenix, but it is just as dry here. And this dry air is the reason for these drastic changes between daytime and night-time temperatures.

Summer (May-September) temperatures vary between the 90s during the day and 60s at night. Monsoon storms are common in July and August, though they often take the form of dust storms. Early mornings and late afternoons are the most pleasant.

During the winter temperatures reach below freezing and snow is not uncommon here.

The best time to visit the park is spring and fall, when the weather is warm, but not too hot. As a bonus in the spring, visitors may also see wildflowers.

Petrified Forest Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park
National Parks in the US: Petrified Forest AZ

10 thoughts on “9 Things To Know About Petrified Forest In Arizona And How To Visit It”

  1. What a fascinating place! The landscape is incredible and the history is amazing! It blows my mind how old the petrified wood is! I’d love to visit in person one day, thanks for the great guide!

  2. Fabulous guide to a park I haven’t been to in years. A good reminder as my dad live in Arizona.

  3. It’s incredible that there are so many interesting things to see here! Just from a general glance you wouldn’t think there is much here because it’s a desert – such a cool place to visit!

    1. You are absolutely right; the thing I love about the desert most is this hidden side of it; you’d think it’s empty, devoid of life, but when you look closer you find it fascinating! Glad you like it; thank you for reading, and commenting.

  4. What a fabulous and educational post. Loved it! I hope to visit both the petrified forest and the painted desert sometime. Truly hard to imagine that area as a lush rainforest. Comprehending a time so long ago is difficult. The crystals in the cross-sections of the fallen trees are just beautiful.

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