As we dove from Santa Fe to the Grand Canyon this summer, we stumbled on a national park that was full of prehistoric artifacts and jaw-dropping views. Petrified Forest National Park is a great place to see natural history without the large crowds common at other nearby parks.
A petrified forest formed in what is now Arizona over 225 million years ago as trees fell and were fossilized. These fossils can be found all around the park but are not souvenirs (as the rangers fight back against the vast amounts of petrified wood stolen every year!). The sediments containing the fossils make up the beautiful painted desert that is also part of the park.
First inhabited by humans over 13,000 years ago and part of the Pueblo nation in the 13th-15th centuries, the area became part of the main wagon routes as settlers headed west in the 19th century. As tourists came in droves to see the amazing fossils, Congress made this the nation’s second national monument in 1906. Historic Route 66 ran right through the land, and for further protection, it became a national park in 1962. With hiking trails and sweeping vistas, it’s a great place to take in the thousands of years of natural history that make up American geography.
Located on the old Route 66/I-40 highway between New Mexico and Flagstaff, Arizona, the Petrified Forest National Park is a fun stop. The park is easy to navigate and has paved roads throughout most of the must-see areas. While there are plenty of hiking trails, you don’t have to do any of the trails to see the petrified wood or the painted desert.
If you’re coming from east of the park like we were, you’ll enter the park at the north entrance. Coming from Holbrook, it’s best to enter the south entrance to prevent backtracking (just reverse my tour below).
When you enter the north entrance, stop at the Painted Desert Visitor Center to pick up a park map. There is also a cafe, gift shop, and gas station here (be sure to fill up as the park road is almost thirty miles long!).
Head onto the park road, stopping at the overlooks and sights highlighted on the map. Be forewarned that it can be very windy so hold on tightly to little ones! This is the painted desert part of the park, and the beauty is hard to capture on film!
You can stop at the Painted Desert Inn Museum if it’s open.
Continue on the park road and you’ll cross the old Route 66 with a 1932 Studebaker sitting where it once cut through the park!
You’ll notice a change in the topography as you continue on the road.
You can stop at an ancestral Pueblo homesite to see centuries-old petroglyphs. Some are over 2000 years old!
We continued to the turn off for the blue mesa where you can drive the four mile loop road to see the amazing site. You can also hike down into the mesa if you want (it’s a paved path).
You’ll see the first of the petrified wood here. It looks like just cut logs but it’s amazing to think these logs are millions of years old! As you continue driving, look for the petrified wood chunks just sitting alongside the road.
Stop at Agate Bridge to see a petrified log spanning a crevice. There are also several stops for varied petrified sites, some glimmering with quartz crystals.
It was pretty cold and windy when we visited (early April), so we headed to the warmth and protection of the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south entrance. This is a small museum full of fossils and overlooking a field of giant petrified logs. Your little dinosaur hunter will love seeing the fossils and playing in the hands-on digging section.
Don’t miss walking on the path behind the museum to see some of the most amazing petrified trees!
The museum is the last major place to visit in the park, but if you’re still up for a two mile hike, check out the agate house constructed by the Pueblos from petrified wood as you leave.
If you want souvenir wood to take home, be sure to purchase it at the gift shops located in the visitor center and museum or go in some of the little shops that line the south exit.
After leaving the park, you’ll head towards Holbrook, a nostalgic old-time town on Route 66. If your kids are a fan of Lightning McQueen, you don’t want to miss the short drive through the center of town!
You’ll even pass the inspiration for Sally’s tee-pee motel in the Cars movie called Wigwam Motel #6. So cool!
As you drive to Flagstaff, you’ll feel as if you’re actually in the Cars movie. Our kids loved it! Just twenty miles away is the Jack Rabbit Trading Post made famous by its “Here It Is” sign. It was a very authentic stop!
Seeing the natural wonders of America’s west is a rite of passage for families. As you make your way to the Grand Canyon, don’t forget to see the other, lesser known sites like Petrified Forest National Park. It’s a fascinating look at prehistoric times all the way to getting your kicks on Route 66!
- Cost: $25/car
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour Time: 2 hours
- Transportation: The park is accessible by car only.
- Dining options: There is a restaurant at the north entrance visitor center. Try one of the authentic diners or restaurants in Holbrook for a fun experience! There are also several fast food chains there as well.
- Nearby hotels: We saw this park on a road trip from Santa Fe to the Grand Canyon, so we didn’t stay in the area. For an authentic Route 66 stay, try the Wigwam Motel #6. There are also several chain hotels in Holbrook.
- Nearby attractions include: Historic Route 66
Books to Read:
All links are Amazon affiliate links. You can visit my Bookshop.org shop to support independent bookstores and creators.