An abundance of ancient, crystallized logs and wood fragments give the Petrified Forest its name, but it’s a name that doesn’t tell the whole story. What you’ll discover here is a diverse and extensive landscape of curiously shaped badlands, vast high-desert mesas, and windswept grasslands. And not for nothing, it's one of the West's most easily reached national parks, as Interstate 40 passes directly across its northern reaches, and a 28-mile Park Road winds provides direct access to many viewpoints, trailheads, and historic sites.
That said, Petrified Forest is situated in a remote, sparsely populated part of east-central Arizona. The nearest towns are Holbrook and Winslow, which offer a glimpse of Historic Route 66 nostalgia - the Mother Road traversed this region before the interstate replaced it. You can gain a surprisingly comprehensive sense of this somewhat underrated national park in just a few hours, making it an ideal detour if you're road-tripping around the Four Corners region.
5…Drive the park road
A paved, well-signed park road runs through the heart of the park, connecting the north and south entrances. This makes for a picturesque and very simple means of exploring. Most visitors start at the northern entrance, which is just off Interstate 40 (exit 311), about 50 miles west of the Arizona-New Mexico border. The advantage of starting here is that you quickly arrive at the park's best source of interpretation and information, the Painted Desert Visitor Center (928-524-6228; http://www.nps.gov/pefo). Don't be put off by the bland exterior of this low-slung utilitarian building - inside you'll find exhibits, a 20-minute video, and touch-friendly displays that interpret the park's fascinating ecosystem, explain the process by which 225-million-year-old trees have morphed into petrified remains, and discuss the abundance of Triassic-era fossils. An adjacent building contains a gift shop and rudimentary restaurant.
If you're approaching in an easterly direction from Flagstaff, it makes more sense to access the Park Road by turning south on U.S. 180 in Holbrook and continuing 20 miles to the south entrance. At either entrance, you'll be charged a per-vehicle fee of $10; you’re paid admission is good for seven days.
4…Drop by the Painted Desert Inn
The Painted Desert Inn lies just a few miles north of the Painted Desert Visitor Center and was for many decades the park's focal point as well as its sole lodging and dining option. It no longer offers accommodations or serves food; however, an ambitious 18-month rehabilitation completed in 2006 returned this striking adobe building to its original glory. The earliest section, known as the Stone Tree House, was built in 1924 by a visionary homesteader named Herbert Lore -- he set the building high on a bluff overlooking the multihued badlands that extend northward for many miles.
The national park service purchased the property in 1936, at which time architect Lyle Bennett and an industrious band of CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) workers gave it a dashing Pueblo Revival-style makeover, complete with an angular adobe exterior and dozens of carved corbels, vigas (beams), and latillas (smaller cross-beams). Managed throughout the '40s and '50s by the fabled Fred Harvey Company and given an illustrious redesign by acclaimed Southwest architect Mary Jane Colter in 1947, the building now ranks among the most beautiful historic structures in the national park system. Inside you'll find a small museum and park bookstore as well as the original restored murals painted by local Hopi artist Fred Kabotie, and hand-hammered tin light fixtures produced by the CCC workers.
3…Hike the Badlands
Designated trails in the park are both short (none longer than three miles) and sweet: on virtually any of these jaunts beneath the big skies above Arizona's mile-high Colorado Plateau, you're treated to mesmerizing views. As you drive south along the Park Road from the Painted Desert Inn, you'll pass turnoffs for the park's most important trails (each with ample parking). The 1-mile round-trip amble along the Painted Desert Rim Trail reveals the layered palette of rust, ochre, orange, tan, and gray that make up the park's undulating badlands -- this nearly barren landscape is composed of constantly eroding clay and volcanic ash known as bentonite, along with layers of sandstone and mudstone. Several miles farther south along the Park Road, the short Puerco Pueblo hike leads to the bare remains of an ancestral Puebloan structure that once contained more than 100 rooms during its heyday more than a thousand years ago.
Most impressive among the park's northern hikes is the Blue Mesa Trail, which begins from a parking area and shelter set down a 3.5-mile-loop side road off the main Park Road. This moderately steep 1.1-mile trail, which is well-graded and paved alternatively with asphalt and gravel, twists and dips like a rollercoaster through an eerie, lunarlike tract of hoodoos, hillocks, mounds, and mesas. The striated formations vary in color, from slate-blue and pewter to chalky white and brick-red - the hues change depending on sun and shadows, and this is an especially memorable hike in the late-afternoon light.
2…View the remnants of a petrified forest
Whereas the northern portions of the park pass through painted desert and badlands, the southern section of road leads through several concentrations of petrified wood. Unfortunately, the majority of these fragments and logs -- which are actually mineralized, three-dimensional fossils in which quartz has replaced slowly decayed wood -- were removed by collectors before the national park service took possession in 1906. Even now, despite numerous warning signs and fines of several hundred dollars for theft of the remaining petrified wood, several tons of it are illegally removed from the park each year.
Among the partly or entirely paved trails just off the Park Road, the Crystal Forest (0.75-mile loop), Giant Logs (0.4-mile loop), and Long Logs (1.6-mile loop) treks offer the best opportunities for up-close petrified-wood viewing. Giant Logs is noted for its 10-foot-wide specimen known as "Old Faithful," which lies at the top of the trail. Also in this section of the park, the small Rainbow Forest Museum contains many more examples of petrified wood as well as exhibits on paleontology and geology.
1…Get your kicks on Route 66
Petrified Forest is the only national park through which a section of the famed 2,200-mile Historic Route 66 passed. You can still detect a line of telephone poles just north of where the Park Road crosses Interstate 40, marking the path of the original roadbed. The closest towns to the park with significant services, Holbrook and Winslow, abound with Route 66 nostalgia, from vintage signs to retro motels and diners.
In Holbrook, quirky Joe and Aggie's Cafe (120 W. Hopi Dr., 866-486-0021, http://www.joeandaggiescafe.com) is a family-run storefront eatery that's been doling out inexpensive portions of hearty Mexican and American food since the early '40s. Head just down the street to view one of the Southwest's icons of roadside kitsch, the Wigwam Motel (811 W. Hopi Dr., 928-524-3048, http://www.galerie-kokopelli.com/wigwam), a rambling compound of concrete-and-steel "teepees" with no-frills furnishings. Note the collection of '40s- and '50s-era automobiles parked throughout the lot. You'll find by far the finest accommodations and dining in the region at Winslow's venerable La Posada (303 E. 2nd St., 928-289-4366, http://www.laposada.org), a swanky 1929 hotel designed by Mary Jane Colter for the Santa Fe Railway. Rooms and public spaces have been beautifully restored, and the beam-ceiling Turquoise Room turns out exceptionally well-prepared farm-to-table contemporary American fare. From the park's north entrance on Interstate 40, it's a 25-mile drive to Holbrook and another 35 miles to Winslow.