About 50 miles west of the Arizona/New Mexico state line on old Route 66 lies Petrified Forest National Park. Created from ancient river beds and inland lakes, the area is known as the Painted Desert because of its colorful sandstone and mudstone deposits.
What really sets it apart from other desert landscapes are its numerous petrified forests, created when the plant material from trees was replaced with quartz over thousands of years. Today the park glistens with multi-hued rock layers and outstanding fossils, enticing visitors to its out-of-this-world setting for a closer view of Nature’s handiwork.
History of Petrified Forest National Park
This history of today’s arid landscape has included human occupation for the last 13,000 years and started with nomadic natives. More recently pueblo peoples lived in villages built from rocks and petrified trees until drought drove them away.
It wasn’t until the 1500s that a name was given to this desert, “El Desierto Pintado” was coined by Spanish explorers looking for travel routes.
By the mid-1800s, U.S. Army Lt. Amiel Whipple led a group of surveyors through the region in search of trails to the Pacific Ocean. He left us with the first known documentation about the petrified wood found along what he referred to as Lithodendron Creek (Stone Tree Creek).
In 1857, others followed Whipple’s trail, building a wagon road and using camels as pack animals. What was thought to be a grand experiment fizzled out, however, when the government refused to invest in camel travel. Once the road was improved, settlers soon followed and ranches began to sprout up throughout the area.
The early 1900s, brought naturalists and scientists to Petrified Forest, as word got out about the vast number of fossils found in the area. John Muir originally came to Arizona for his daughter’s health, but he returned to California with a small collection of fossils.
Annie Alexander and Dr. Charles Camp oversaw fossil expeditions, and H.P. Mera recorded 87 archaeological sites within today’s park boundaries. After all of these scientific discoveries, it’s easy to see why President Theodore Roosevelt protected the area as Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906.
Today the monument is now a national park, encompassing over 221,000 acres that are home to hundreds of plants and animals, as well as fossils and rock formations. As of June 2018, the park achieved International Dark Sky Park Status. It is also one of the few national parks that allow leashed dogs on most of the trails.
Why Visit Petrified Forest National Park in Your RV?
The park is a perfect destination for RVers, with its system of paved roads and spacious pull-outs. Many hikers love the idea of heading off into the hills for an hour or two and returning to the comfort of their RV for shade and a bite of lunch before cruising to the next park highlight.
There are no campgrounds within Petrified Forest National Park, but several private ones are not far away in the towns of Holbrook, Joseph City or Winslow.
Places to Go in Petrified Forest National Park
There’s plenty of places to go and check out at the Petrified Forest National Park. Here are some of the must-see spots.
Painted Desert Inn
Once known as the Stone Tree House, this National Historic Landmark was originally created from petrified wood. In the 1930s, it was remodeled with the stucco façade seen today, and it acts as a museum and art gallery.
Painted Desert Visitors Center
Part of a 23 building complex, the Visitors Center encompasses a self-contained community with a gas station, residences, maintenance shop, restaurant, gift shop, restrooms, and information center. Visitors can enjoy park videos and ranger-led tours here.
One of many ancient houses within the park that has been replicated. The Native Americans created year-round residences of stacked petrified wood, and this one is in the Rainbow Forest region of the park.
An area of the park that includes over 650 petroglyphs that were created by ancient Native Americans that lived in the region.
Petrified Forest is the only national park that harbors the legendary Route 66 highway within its boundaries. Remnants of The Mother Road can still be seen in a line of telephone poles along the old road bed.
Pueblo people wandered this area up until the 1300s and built a series of pueblos that housed around 200 people until drought and unknown forces caused them to abandon their homes. The foundation of this pueblo complex can be explored in the park.
Things to Do
There’s not only cool places to see in the park, but there’s also plenty to do. Here are some of the activities you can partake in at the Petrified Forest National Park.
There are dozens of hiking trails throughout the Painted Desert. Here are a few of the popular ones with links to maps and descriptions for each:
- Blue Forest Trail
- Billings Gap Overlook
- Martha’s Butte
- Onyx Bridge
- Devil’s Playground (permit needed)
- Jasper Forest
- First Forest Point
The Painted Desert Wilderness Access Trail is 2 miles north of the Visitors Center and has ample parking for horse trailers. There are no designated trails, but riders are asked to leave minimal impact on the area by traveling through dry washes when possible. Camping permits are available for overnight stays in the area.
Petrified Forest National Park has created several geocaches throughout the park, including virtual, tradition, and earth caches. They participate in the “Find Your Park Geo Tour,” and parking has been made accessible near all coordinates.
Get a free camping permit with instructions on where to backpack throughout the park.
Backcountry camping is allowed at least one mile from two designated parking areas with a permit.
When to Visit Petrified Forest National Park
The park is open year round, but with a location in the middle of the Arizona desert, the high daytime temperatures might not be quite as pleasant for a visit during the summer months.
Because hiking is a popular activity here, spring and fall are optimum times for visitors. Winter can bring surprise storms on occasion, but for the most part, Petrified Forest is accessible any time of the year.
Where RVers Can Stay
There are no campgrounds within Petrified Forest National Park. However, surrounding towns like Holbrook and Joseph City have private campgrounds where RVs are welcome. Here are a few:
- Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA offers campsites for tents and RVs, this campground has a pool, snack bar, camp kitchen and a dog park for those traveling with Fido.
- OK RV Park is in Holbrook and provides 30 and 50 amp hookups and pull-thru sites. A laundry is onsite, along with a clubhouse.
- Norma’s RV Park is in Joseph City and is a no-frills park with electric hookups and helpful service.
Getting to and Around Petrified Forest National Park
Getting to Petrified Forest National Park is pretty straight forward. Located in the northeastern part of Arizona, it is accessible via Interstate 40 at exit 311. The Visitors Center is about a mile north of the highway, but the park has regions that run north of the interstate and as far south as Highway 180.
Travel around the park requires a car or RV. No motorized vehicles are allowed on park trails; however, horses are allowed in the Painted Desert Wilderness. There is no public transportation available in the area.
Petrified Forest National Park has some of the most unique examples of geology, archaeology, and paleontology within the national park system. You will come away from your visit with a sense of awe at what Mother Nature has accomplished here!
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