Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert is located on I-40 on the western edge of Arizona. The national park is only a couple miles long on I-40 but stretches almost 30 miles wide and is on both sides of the interstate. Many people make a really quick stop here on the way to or from the Grand Canyon and other points in the West. But this park is really worth a lot more than a quick stop.
The most immediately attractive thing about Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert is naturally the petrified wood. You’ll definitely find plenty of that here. Though petrified wood can be found in most areas of the world, the park contains one of the largest and most colorful deposits of it on earth.
It’s strewn in random clumps across the park, but is mainly found on hillsides and in valleys or washes. Unfortunately, the “Petrified Forest” is not a standing forest. It would be amazing to see ages-old petrified tree fossils still standing the way they existed eons ago, but unfortunately the park visitor will have to settle for petrified logs stacked and strewn like boulders.
If you take the main park road back through the park (about 20 miles one way) you’ll find the biggest and easiest to access groups of petrified wood at the Jasper Forest, Crystal Forest, and Rainbow Forest stops. As the names imply, Jasper Forest petrified wood is mainly made out of jasper and Crystal Forest petrified wood is mainly made out of crystals such as quartz.
Rainbow Forest is also the location of the park’s main museum where you can find lots of information about the petrified wood in the park. The trail just behind the Rainbow Forest Museum has the largest group of petrified wood that is also on an easy-to-access trail. Here, you can see massive petrified logs over 20 feet in length and over 5 feet wide. The petrified wood here is also made from a large variety of materials including jasper, quartz, goldstone, and many other types of rock.
One of the really neat aspects of the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park is that they leave all the petrified wood where it is found. They don’t move it around and stack it so that it’s convenient for the trail or so that the best specimens are up front. The way you see the petrified wood is the exact same way it was left after ages of geological activity. You’d think that this would make the petrified wood specimens sparse and spread out, but that’s absolutely not the case. The petrified wood naturally accumulates in massive clumps that completely surround the park’s major trails and portions of the road.
The “Painted Desert” is tacked on to the end of the national park’s name because it is also an important (though often overlooked) part of the park. The Painted Desert is basically the park’s modern-day ecology. It’s a semi-arid desert with the standard dry bushes, grasses, tumbleweeds, and other plants. There are quite a few lizards and tarantulas living here as well as prairie rabbits and pronghorn deer. Anyone who spends at least half a day here should be guaranteed to see a good representation of the park’s wildlife.
The reason it’s known as the “Painted” Desert is because it really appears as if an artist took a brush and smeared varying colors from his pallet across the landscape’s hills and plains. The colors of the earth can change from blue to white to a million shades of red all on one hill. This is because of the different layers of earth and mineral in the park are made up of everything from sandstone, clay, iron-stained siltstone and hematite. It’s really a fantastic landscape.
The best example of the Painted Desert can be viewed from a lookout on the roadside just after you enter the park from I-40. There, the plateau dips down and hundreds of painted hills surround a flat plain and wash area. Also, “The Teepees” that can be viewed surrounding the southern portion of the park’s main road are another superb example of the Painted Desert’s unique look.
The Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert has only one option for overnight stay: wilderness hiking and backcountry camping. While this may be a bit too difficult for average visitors, for people in decent shape and health, it shouldn’t be a problem at all and it is certainly a rewarding experience.
Basically, you just have to apply for a free backcountry permit when you arrive. Then, at one of two ends of the park, you hike far enough into the designated wilderness area and set up camp. The first and possibly best wilderness area is the painted desert area which has a scenic overlook close to the park’s entrance. You go down a switchback trail and over a few ridges that are maybe ¼ or ½ of a mile in length, then you hike over the flat plain and wash area another mile or further and can set up camp wherever you’d like.
The backcountry camping experience in the Painted Desert is amazing. First and foremost, it’s amazing because it is very solitary; there was only one other camper there the night we stayed and we couldn’t see him even when we climbed to the top of a hill and looked everywhere we could see with binoculars (and that’s a long ways off). There are also plenty of pieces of petrified wood down in the wilderness area and opportunities to see undisturbed wildlife. We stayed the night right in the middle of a beautiful and solitary place. It was a great experience and much more intimate than just walking a couple of marked trails.
Another great and often-overlooked aspect of the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park is that it’s an ongoing paleontological site. That just means that scientists (which include some of the park rangers) are still digging up fossils of ancient creatures such as prehistoric insects, dinosaurs, mammalian creatures and crocodiles. The park’s fossils mainly come from the Late Triassic period and they form the basis of our modern knowledge of that era. At the Rainbow Forest Museum, visitors can find large exhibits of reconstructed fossil skeletons and murals of how the Late Triassic might have appeared at the site of the modern-day petrified forest.
While my wife and I were checking in at the visitor center, one of the park’s rangers/scientists was telling the ranger at the desk how he just unearthed a really good specimen of a phytosaur skull. The phytosaur was a crocodilian-type creature of which the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park provides the best-known specimens. When hiking around the bottom part of the Painted Desert, I also ran across quite a few small fossil impressions in the rocks.
Finally, the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert isn’t amazing just for its dinosaur-age fossils and its intriguing modern ecology, but it also stores a part of the history of our nation’s first inhabitants. Visitors can walk among the remains of a hundred room Puebloan village that is over 600 years old. Just along the main road, a stop for “Newspaper Rock” reveals some amazing petroglyphs that literally cover a huge boulder near the valley floor. Because visitors aren’t allowed right up next to it, you have to view it through binoculars or the available telescopes. The good thing is that this has also helped to preserve the distinctness of the images and is actually quite a bit more fascinating than Petroglyph National Monument.
Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert is an amazing national park that is full of a variety of wonders, both recent and ancient. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked or rushed through by visitors on their way to the Grand Canyon or other Western points. If you’re ever in the area of northeastern Arizona, don’t make the same mistake. Take some time to enjoy this incredible place.