Petrified Forest National Park, conveniently located next to Interstate 40 in Northern Arizona, can be explored in a couple of hours. It offers a scenic drive including a section of historic Route 66, the Painted Desert Inn and family-friendly hiking trails. Kids that love dinosaurs should love petrified wood. For those yearning for a landscape from old western, the colorful mesas that dot the horizon as wide as the sky itself will satisfy.
Petrified Forest National Park
Over 200 million years ago, ancient Arizona was a rainforest, with roaming dinosaurs and lush forests. As the continents moved and the climate changed, the rainforest slowly died off. The huge trees fell to the earth and slowly transformed into stone.
In the late 1800s, visitors started to collect the petrified wood and threatened the unique landscape of Petrified Forest. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Petrified Forest National Monument and in 1962, it became a national park.
History of Painted Desert Inn
Built in the 1920s, the Painted Desert Inn has been a part of the park’s landscape. Originally constructed of petrified wood and native stone, a park ranger, Lyle Bennett, redesigned it in the Pueblo Revival Style in the 1930s.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) added the stucco masonry walls, flat roofs and viga beams using ponderosa pine and aspen poles from nearby forests. The CCC made the light fixtures of hand-punched tin as well.
With a convenient location along Route 66, the Painted Desert Inn provided travelers with meals, Native American arts and crafts and lodging until the start of World War II. It closed for five years along with the majority of the National Park Service sites during the war.
The Fred Harvey Company arrived in the 1940s to freshen up the Painted Desert Inn. Mary Jane Coulter, the lead architect for Fred Harvey, oversaw the renovations and added a new color scheme. By this time, Coulter was well-known for her work from the nearby Grand Canyon Village.
The Fred Harvey Company brought the Harvey Girls to the Painted Desert Inn, who served customers from the 1940s until the 1950s. The Painted Desert Inn became a National Historic Landmark in 1987 after escaping demolition.
As America grew so did the need for roads. In 1853, Congress authorized a study to find a rail route between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. By 1857, a wagon road extended from New Mexico to the Colorado River. In 1926 Route 66 opened as one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System.
The Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park to protect a portion of Route 66. Near the Painted Desert Visitor Center, I pulled over to see the fabled route that enchanted a nation with the romance of cruising the open road much like the cowboys did a generation before.
What to do in 2 Hours
With 28 miles of paved park roads, Petrified Forest National Park offers a convenient one-way drive through the park. Start at the either the north or south entrance.
I found a visitor center at each entrance, the Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north entrance and the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south entrance. Each visitor center offers an interpretive area along with an introductory movie. Outside I found marked trails, perfect for families with small children.
Stop at the Painted Desert Inn (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) for a quick tour of the historic property. Drive along the park road and stop at the viewpoints along the route.
Kids at Petrified Forest
The Junior Ranger Program offers the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at either the Painted Desert Visitor Center or the Rainbow Forest Museum and turn them in at the other end of the park. This Junior Ranger booklet doesn’t require attending a ranger program and can be completed within an hour or two while exploring the park.
Family-Friendly Hikes in Petrified Forest
Stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum, several hikes originate in this area. The Giant Logs Trail offers a .4-mile trail where I found Old Faithful, a petrified tree that’s 10-feet wide at its base. Not an accessible trail or suitable for strollers, I found several sets of stairs.
For families who want a longer hike, try the Long Logs Trail, a 1.6-mile loop, or the Agate House Trail, a 2-mile roundtrip hike. Both trails originate at the Rainbow Forest Museum parking lot and can be combined for a 2.6-mile hike.
The Puerco Pueblo Trail offers an accessible and stroller-friendly .3-mile hike about half-way between the entrances. On this trail, I found petroglyphs, or rock carvings.
Add Petrified Forest National Park to your road trip through northern Arizona. I found picnic tables and restrooms at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, Painted Desert Inn, Chinde Point and the Rainbow Forest Museum.
Where’s Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is located along Interstate 40, 25 miles east of Holbrook, Arizona. There is a regional airport in Flagstaff, Arizona, 92 miles away. Grand Canyon National Park is 200 miles west.
For eastbound travel, take I-40 exits 285 or 286 at Holbrook, Arizona, the Petrified Forest National Park entrance is 21 miles south along Highway 180. Drive north through the park and re-enter I-40 at the exit 311.
For westbound travel, exit I-40 at exit 311 and enter the park through the north entrance and exit through the south entrance. Drive 21 miles to Holbrook, Arizona, where you can re-enter I-40.
Details for Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is open every day except December 25. The park hours fluctuate during the year though winter hours (October 30 until February 20) are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; summer hours (May 29 until July 23) are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Purchase a 7-day pass for $20 per vehicle or use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80).
Know before you go:
- Arizona stays on Mountain Standard Time year-round, no day-light savings time.
- Petrified Forest National Park doesn’t offer a campground. Find lodging in Holbrook, Arizona, 21 miles away.
- Register at a visitor center for a free backcountry camping permit.
- Collecting fossils, plants, or artifacts within National Park Service sites is prohibited.
- Stay on marked trails or paths.
- Drones aren’t permitted at any NPS location.
- Bring food and refillable water bottles for your visit.
- Carry extra water year-round.
- Temperatures can reach over 100F in the summer.