Petrified Forest National Park
The Painted Desert is just one aspect of this amazing national park. Kurt Repanshek photo.
Threads of the Late Triassic Period more than 200 million years ago run rampant through Petrified Forest National Park, and not just in the trunks of stone trees that dot this multi-hued landscape in northeastern Arizona.
Teasing those threads out, though, takes a keen eye, and time. Unfortunately, the park road runs just 28 miles through its 93,532 acres, so unless you exhibit some discipline you'll cruise down the pavement, stop momentarily at the 22 overlooks, and be gone in a very small number of hours.
But if you prepare for a visit by studying a primer on the Late Triassic Period and the ensuing 200+ million years, and familiarize yourself with what's to see and where to see it, you'll arrive not only with a rudimentary knowledge of the wonders that exist within Petrified Forest's borders, but also with a game plan for exploring this wondrous landscape.
Fortunately, there's no need to head to a library for this information. We'll lay down the basics in the accompanying chapters, and the park's website has a treasure trove of scientific papers that will further deepen your understanding of this landscape.
That there's petrified wood here is no surprise, and you won't have to strain your eyes to see it. But if you want to find the most colorful examples, do you head to the Jasper Forest, the Crystal Forest, or the Rainbow Forest? And what makes those stony slabs so colorful? That's all covered below.
Beyond the logs of stone, there are rich archaeological resources dating back at least 1,000 years that merit your attention, and they're on display in a few places accessible via that one road. Beyond that are the remains of giant reptiles that walked the earth 220 million years ago, and those are best seen in the Rainbow Forest Museum.
If you're determined to catch the color of this land with your camera, well, you're faced with an even greater dilemma: timing your stops so you catch the best light for your shots. After all, what's best for the Painted Desert might not be best for the Crystal Forest or Giant Logs or Agate House. We'll try to help you with that dilemma.
There are rich chapters of human history here, and not just those tied to Ancestral Puebloans who built their stone publeos on this landscape. Dating of arrowheads found here indicate human presence as long ago as 13,500 years. A bit more recently Spanish explorers passed through this parched landscape, and no doubt one of the strangest sights in the United States -- the U.S. Camel Corps -- came by in the late 1850s.
There's Civilian Conservation Corps history as well; just stop by the Painted Desert Inn for a tour to see some of the corps' handiworks, visit Agate House, or walk through the museum at the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center. Historic Route 66 blazed a path across the park's colorful landscape, too, carrying travelers west and east, and film buffs will be interested to know that those Easy Riders, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, cruised by as well.
But where do you start, and where do you end, to maximize your visit to Petrified Forest National Park? Spend a little time on these pages and we'll answer those and other questions.
Outwardly, Petrified Forest National Park might seem one-dimensional. But as you get to know it, and if you take your time passing through it, you'll come away impressed and understanding why it was designated as a national monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and upgraded to a national park in 1962.
Traveler's Choice For: Photography, geology lessons, kids, history.
Unfortunately, there are no front-country campgrounds at Petrified Forest National Park, so if you want to pitch a tent, you'll either have to head off into the wilderness backcountry, or look for the nearest private campground.
If you have a horse, you're more than welcome to explore of the backcountry of Petrified Forest National Park, though you'll need to come prepared.