Five steps for visiting Arizona’s Petrified Forest

National park protects precious resources

My family visited Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona 35 years ago. Like many people, we stopped at a few overlooks, photographed a few of the ancient logs and quickly moved on to the next park of our vacation itinerary. Nothing wrong with that.

Flash forward, just three months ago, I returned to Petrified Forest to see if I missed anything important. And of course, I discovered the park entailed much more, such as great walking trails, colorful landscapes and fascinating geology.

arizona petrified forest things to do
The Crystal Forest Trail provided some of the best close-up views of petrified logs.

1. Research your time of year

Trade-offs. Visit during the summer and some national parks will scorch the soles off your shoes. Visit in fall and you could enjoy the autumn foliage colors, but few blooming wildflowers. Choose spring for seeing newborn animals but don’t expect those huge antlers until late summer and fall.

That’s why I like to re-visit parks during different seasons, to enjoy the differences. I purposely chose early November to return to Arizona’s Petrified Forest because of the cool temps. I avoid sightseeing and hiking in 100 plus degrees, even if it’s dry heat. Cooler fall and spring skies also produce less haze and more color in your skies and scenic views.

petrified forest national park worth it seeing
The ancient trees contain a kaleidoscope of colors.

2. Check when the park opens

I arrived at the south entrance to Petrified Forest National Park just before sunrise, anticipating fantastic views from scenic overlooks. I never anticipated the locked gate and a 90-minute wait to enter the park. In addition, the park closed early in the afternoon, around 5:30 p.m., so I also could not experience a sunset inside the Petrified Forest. I wore the veil of disappointment.

Most national parks are accessible 24 hours a day, or at least between dawn and dusk. I never found out if the gated closures were due to COVID or to a year-round policy meant to diligently protect the park’s ancient resources – such as petrified wood, fossils and artifacts – from exploitation and theft. Either way, I should have checked the park’s website ahead of time for operating hours instead of assuming visitation mimicked other units in the national park system.

Petrified Forest National Park is best viewed up close.
Petrified Forest National Park is best viewed up close.
The park’s northern section features great scenic overlooks but fewer walks and trails.
The park’s northern section features great scenic overlooks but fewer walks and trails.

3. Talk to the park staff

It’s a good practice for any park you visit. The staff and rangers can steer you to areas that address your specific interests. Lately I’ve experienced park websites that are infrequently updated with trail closures and road construction updates. Plus, field rangers seem scarcer in some parks, partly because they’re spending more time with crowd control and trying to prevent dangerous encounters between cars, humans and wildlife.

At the Petrified visitors center, we talked to several park staff who were socially distanced behind plexiglass or a light barricade. They shared information about recent fossil findings and the best scenic overlooks for early morning photography. We also received intel about recent wildlife sightings.

I loved looking at the fragments, but I left every piece in its natural place.
I loved looking at the fragments, but I left every piece in its natural place.

4. Walk the trails

 The park offers a number of structured hiking trail systems, but we thoroughly enjoyed the short walking trails that led to some of the famous geological formations. Our favorites included the one-mile Crystal Forest trail with great close-up views of petrified logs, the two-miles into Jasper Forest (where most people just enjoy the overlook and don’t explore the trail) and the three-mile Blue Forest Trail located along the Blue Mesa driving loop, with great up-close views of the colorful badland hills. Several of the park’s hiking trails were coated with a mixture of gravel and silicon, which surprisingly produced a very comfortable walking surface – the first time I’ve experienced this unique approach to trail maintenance.

We wanted to hike the eight-mile roundtrip route to Devil’s Playground, a more remote part of Petrified Forest to that leads to an eroded landscape featuring unusual rock formations decorated in banded erosion colors. However, the park only offers three permits a week and interested hikers have to show up on Wednesday at the Painted Desert Visitors Center with fingers crossed that they’ll score one of the permits. Certainly not a user-friendly system for people trying to plan a vacation.

The Blue Mesa Loop provided great panoramic views of the Petrified Forest badlands.
The Blue Mesa Loop provided great panoramic views of the Petrified Forest badlands.

5. Skip Newspaper Rock

I’ve seen many petroglyphs and pictographs during my travels, at destinations such as Arches National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Valley of Fire State Park and Newspaper Rock in the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park.

There’s also a Newspaper Rock in the Petrified Forest but I’d recommend skipping it, unless you’re trying to kill some time. Access is very limited with views only from an overlook above the ancient drawings. The park installed spotting scopes at the overlook, but they’re not user friendly. You’re better served by bringing your own binoculars.

If you’ve visited the Petrified Forest National Park in the past and enjoyed it, I highly recommend Theodore Roosevelt National Park  in North Dakota, which features a section of petrified wood and tree stumps in its south unit. In both parks, the geology is fascinating, even to non-rock fans like me.

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