We stayed at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, so in the morning we only had a 30 minute drive to the park entrance.
We arrived shortly after the park opened and paid our $10 entry fee. The park fee covers entry for a full week, so if you are able to take advantage and spend several days, you’ll really get your money’s worth. If you are visiting during a national holiday, check the park website and see if you will receive free admission.
One of the unique things about the park entrance were the questions that we were asked before we were able to enter. The ranger asked us if we had any petrified wood or rocks with us. We told her no, she then gave us an orange sheet and told us to fill this out, returning it to anyone that works at the park should we see anyone stealing natural resources. Evidently there is a large problem with people stealing petrified wood.
How the Wood Petrified
Before I visited the park, I was not sure exactly how wood petrified. Once we arrived it was even stranger to see these huge petrified logs in the middle of the desert, not the right environment for the trees to grow.
I learned that the desert was a floodplain many years ago. When the trees fell they were washed down the rivers to the floodplains. It was here that they were buried in a mix of silt, mud and volcanic ash. This mix of sediments cut off oxygen and slowed the decay of the logs. When silicia-laden groundwater seeped through the logs, it replaced the wood tissues with silica and petrified the logs.
The petrified trees are over 200 million years old! As the continents moved to where they are now, the climate also changed. The tropical environment that housed the trees when they fell is now the arid dessert. Over time, wind and water wore away the rock and exposed the petrified wood.
Petrified wood is an extremely unique resource. In 1906 President Roosevelt protected the land and the petrified trees. Since then the park has continued to expand, more than double the size of the original park.
Things to See at the Petrified Forest
We entered the park on the southern end (off of highway 180). From there we took the 28 mile long road through the park, leaving from the northern end (off of highway 40).
We only spent about 2 hours in the park which was somewhat rushed but we needed to make it back to New Mexico to catch our flight in the afternoon. In hindsight, we should have allowed more time at the park.
Giant Log Trail
This was the first place that we visited. Even though we did not walk around the entire loop to see all of the petrified logs, we did get to see the largest petrified log (named Old Faithful). The start to the trail can be found directly behind the Rainbow Forest Museum. While the logs on this trail were impressive, it shows how little petrified wood is left in the park.
Previously the petrified wood in this area used to have many crystals on it. Over time, people have stolen most of the crystals.
Cone shaped formations layered with colors of blues, purples and grays. While these were interesting, they paled in comparison to the petrified wood for me personally.
Petroglyphs of people and animals etched into stone. This was actually really cool as everything was well preserved (or re-created very well).
A 100 room village that housed around 200 people, built between 1250 and 1380. While it was interesting, we had seen quite a few ruins in Sedona several days earlier.
Painted Desert Overlook Points
On the northern part of the park road there are a few overlook areas to take pictures of the painted desert.
Things That We Didn’t See/Do
Since we were on a time crunch, we didn’t get to do everything that we would have done if we had more time.
Long Logs Trail
I’m not sure how we missed this short, paved trail, but it seems like we drove right by it and stopped next at the Crystal Forest. The Long Logs trail is on the right side of the road, just a short ways past the Rainbow Forest Museum and the Giant Log trail.
There are quite a few trails that look really fun to hike. The Jasper Forest Hike is the one that looks most interesting to us and is a reasonable 2.5 mile round trip hike. For a more serious hiker, the Devil’s Playground looks awesome. They only give out 3 permits a week and the location is a secret until you get your permit.
I would recommend taking a trip to the Petrified Forest if you are in the area but I’m not sure it is worth going far out of your way to see it. The petrified wood is really cool, especially when you think about the 200 million years that it took to change it into the state that it is in now.
I wish that there was more wood in the park, but I guess that is one of the things that you learn as you visit the park – over the years people have stolen the wood and it is an irreplaceable natural resource.
Unless you want to rush through your visit, I would recommend spending at least a half day at the park. If you plan to hike, I would plan to spend a full day.
Make sure that you bring a picnic lunch with you, otherwise you’ll have to dine at the Painted Desert Visitor Center which houses the only restaurant in the park. As with all places in the desert, make sure that you bring plenty of water with you. It can get quite hot, especially if you plan on hiking.