Petrified Forest National Park is an overlooked gem in the National Park System, in part perhaps owing to its location in northeastern Arizona, or possibly because there are no in-park accommodations, or maybe because the park shuts down at sundown.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't explore this fascinating landscape. Since there are just two entrances to the park -- one off U.S. 40 near the Painted Desert Visitor Center, and one southeast of Holbrook, Arizona, off U.S. 180 at the Rainbow Forest Museum -- you don't have to spend a lot of time deciding how to get into the park.
Or do you?
If you're interested in photography, you just might want to consider which entrance you pass through if, for instance, you want to capture the warm afternoon light being soaked up by the Painted Desert. Regardless of which entrance you choose, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your visit to Petrified Forest National Park:
* Do not pass either the Painted Desert Visitor Center or the Rainbow Forest Museum. Within their doors you'll find reams of information on the park: maps, plenty of shelves with helpful books on geology and history, T-shirts to remember your visitor, deadly Jigsaw puzzles depicting colorful settings of petrified wood, and, of course, a place to stamp your Passport to Your National Parks. And take the opportunity to top off your water bottle!
Spend any time in the Rainbow Forest Museum and you'll learn about the huge reptiles that once trod the landscape that now looks so desolate.
Petrified Forest National Park has Triassic invertebrate and vertebrate fossils collected from the Chinle Formation. Inside the museum, you'll find pieces of petrified wood (including some slabs that are nicely polished!), fossils, and and displays of prehistoric animals.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center doesn't delve so deeply into the ancient creatures that once lived here, but you'll be able to get a great overview of the park's layout, what to do, browse the well-stocked shelves of guidebooks, and catch a showing of Timeless Impressions, the park film that is shown every 30 minutes.
* Do check out the Painted Desert Inn. This not only is an artistic wonder, but it's chockful of history. The inn arose in 1924 when Herbert Lore registered the inn as his business and claimed property on which it stands under the Homestead Act. The inn was quickly nicknamed “Stone Tree House” due to the petrified wood used in its construction.
For about a dozen years Mr. Lore ran the Inn as a tourist attraction. Visitors could eat meals in the lunchroom, purchase Native American arts and crafts, and enjoy a cool drink in the downstairs taproom. Rooms were available for $2-4 dollars per night.
In 1932 Petrified Forest National Monument expanded with the addition of 53,300 acres of the Painted Desert, not including Mr. Lore's property. In 1931, however, he had expressed interest in selling or exchanging his property "in order that it could be preserved and protected."
It was not until 1935 that the Park Service purchased the Inn and four sections of land for $59,400. From 1937 to 1940, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was working on a number of projects in the park, crews used architectural plans prepared by Park Service architect Lyle Bennett and remodeled Painted Desert Inn into the Pueblo Revival Style structure you see today.
While you can't rent a room in the inn these days, you can tour it, check out the brightly colored soda fountain room with its original murals, gaze upwards at the stained glass in the lobby, and peek into some of the incredibly small rooms. When they were built, they didn't have bathrooms, just a bed, a dresser, a sink, and a fireplace. Bathrooms were down a nearby hall.
From the patios surrounding the inn you can gaze into the colorful Painted Desert, and from a trailhead on the west side of the inn you can even hike down and out into the desert (just bring plenty of water!). And if you visit the park in late October, be sure to ask the rangers about the ghosts that haunt the inn.
* Take a hike. None of the hikes that you'll find along the park road are long, but they are fascinating with insights into the human past or the petrified past. Here are some of the best. At Puerco Pueblo you'll find a large archeological site that was was occupied more than 600 years ago.
The pueblo has been partially excavated and a few of the room foundations stabilized. The trail also features petroglyphs, though some you'll need a keen eye and a little patience to spot. The stone building here used to be the park's entrance station.
At Blue Mesa, you'll need to drive about 3.5 miles from the park road to reach the trailhead. Once there, an asphalt trail leads you down into the colorful landscape and completes a short loop, offering gorgeous views of the badlands that are studded with petrified logs, slabs, and bits.
The Crystal Forest Trail is right off the road and consists of another asphalt loop that meanders through a maze of petrified wood. I've been told that you can actually leave the trail on the backside of it and head off into the official wilderness on this end of the park. Just be sure you are properly prepared with enough water and snacks, and keep track of where you're heading so you can return to your car.
* On the way from Blue Mesa to the Crystal Forest, pull off to check out the Agate Bridge that spans a wash. Roughly 100 feet long, the stone log is a sight to see (even if it is now supported by concrete). It was put in place about 225 million years ago; the concrete was added in 1917.
* The hike to Agate House isn't too long, though it might seem so if you do it at midday under a blazing sun in August. So if you find yourself in the park in August, or even July, plan to do this hike in the morning or late in the afternoon. What you'll find is a pueblo made from petrified rocks that the Park Service has reconstructed.
* Check in the park paper, at the visitor center, or the Rainbow Forest Museum for current ranger programs. Programs vary greatly, from ranger-led hikes and programs that delve into the processes of petrification to archaeological programs and even demonstrations from area artisans skilled at carving, making jewelry, weaving, and dancing.