Petrified Forest National Park has both a north and a south entrance. If you are coming from the west, it's better to start at the southern entrance and work your way north along the park's 27-mile scenic road, which has more than 20 overlooks. This way, you'll see the most impressive displays of petrified logs early in your visit and save the Painted Desert vistas for last. If you're coming from the east, start at the northern entrance and work your way south.
The Rainbow Forest Museum (tel. 928/524-6228), just inside the south entrance to the park, is the best place to begin your tour. Here you can learn all about petrified wood, watch an introductory film, and otherwise get oriented. Exhibits chronicle the area's geologic and human history. There are also displays on the reptiles and dinosaurs that once inhabited this region. The museum sells maps and books and also issues free backpacking permits. Early May to early September, it's open from 7am to 7pm (daily); early September to late October and late February to early May, it's open daily from 7am to 6pm; late October to late February, it's open from 8am to 5pm (daily). Adjacent to the museum is a snack bar.
The Giant Logs self-guided trail starts behind the museum. The trail winds across a hillside strewn with logs that are 4 to 5 feet in diameter. Almost directly across the parking lot from the museum is the entrance to the Long Logs and Agate House areas. On the 1.6-mile Long Logs trail, you can see more big trees, while at Agate House, a 2-mile round-trip hike will lead you to the ruins of a pueblo built from colorful petrified wood. These two trails can be combined into a 2.5-mile hike.
Heading north, you'll pass by the unusual formations known as the Flattops. These structures were caused by the erosion of softer mineral deposits from beneath a harder and more erosion-resistant layer of sandstone. This is one of the park's wilderness areas. The Crystal Forest is the next stop to the north, named for the beautiful amethyst and quartz crystals once found in the cracks of petrified logs. Concern over the removal of these crystals was what led to the protection of the petrified forest. A .75-mile loop trail winds past the logs that once held the crystals.
At the Jasper Forest Overlook, you can see logs that include petrified roots, and a little bit farther north, at the Agate Bridge stop, you can see a petrified log that forms a natural agate bridge. Continuing north, you'll reach Blue Mesa, where pieces of petrified wood form capstones over easily eroded clay soils. As wind and water wear away at the clay beneath a piece of stone, the balance of the stone becomes more and more precarious until it eventually comes toppling down. A 1-mile loop trail here leads into the park's badlands.
Erosion has played a major role in the formation of the Painted Desert, and to the north of Blue Mesa you'll see some of the most interesting erosional features of the area. It's quite evident why these hills of sandstone and clay are known as the Teepees. The layers of different color are due to manganese, iron, and other minerals in the soil.
By this point, you've probably seen as much petrified wood as you'd ever care to see, so be sure to stop at Newspaper Rock, where instead of staring at more ancient logs, you can see a dense concentration of petroglyphs left by generations of Native Americans. Unfortunately you can no longer get close to these petroglyphs, so you'll have to be content to observe them from a distance. At nearby Puerco Pueblo, the park's largest archaeological site, you can view the remains of homes built by the people who created the park's petroglyphs. This pueblo was probably occupied around A.D. 1400. Don't miss the petroglyphs on its back side.
North of Puerco Pueblo, the road crosses I-40. From here to the Painted Desert Visitor Center, there are eight overlooks onto the southernmost edge of the Painted Desert. Named for the vivid colors of the soil and stone that cover the land here, the Painted Desert is a dreamscape of pastels washed across a barren expanse of eroded hills. The colors are created by minerals dissolved in sandstone and clay soils that were deposited during different geologic periods. There's a picnic area at Chinde Point overlook. At Kachina Point, you'll find the Painted Desert Inn, a renovated historic building that is operated as a bookstore and museum. From here, there's access to the park's other wilderness area. The inn, which was built in 1924 and expanded by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is noteworthy for both its architecture and the Fred Kabotie murals on the interior walls. Hours are 9am to 5pm daily. Between Kachina Point and Tawa Point, you can do an easy 1-mile round-trip hike along the rim of the Painted Desert. An even more interesting route leads down into the Painted Desert from behind the Painted Desert Inn.
Just inside the northern entrance to the park is the Painted Desert Visitor Center (tel. 928/524-6228), which is open the same hours as the Rainbow Forest Museum . Here you can watch a short film that explains the process by which wood becomes fossilized (it's the same film that's shown at the Rainbow Forest Museum). Adjacent to the visitor center are a cafeteria, a bookshop, and a gas station.
Other Reasons to Linger in Holbrook
Although the Petrified Forest National Park is the main reason for visiting this area, you might want to stop by downtown Holbrook's Old West Museum, 100 E. Arizona St. (tel. 928/524-6558), which also houses the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce visitor center. This old and dusty museum has exhibits on local history but is most interesting for its old jail cells. It's open Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday from 8am to 4pm; admission is free. On weekday evenings in June and July, there are Native American dance performances in front of the visitor center.
Although it is against the law to collect petrified wood inside Petrified Forest National Park, there are several rock shops in Holbrook where you can buy legally collected pieces of petrified wood in all shapes and sizes. You'll find them lined up along the main street through town and out on U.S. 180, the highway leading to the south entrance of Petrified Forest National Park. The biggest and best of these rock shops is Jim Gray's Petrified Wood Co., 147 U.S. 180 (tel. 928/524-1842; www.petrifiedwoodco.com), which has everything from raw rocks to petrified-wood coffee tables that sell for thousands of dollars. This store also has a fascinating display of minerals and fossils. It's open daily from 7am to 7 or 8pm in the summer (8am-6pm in other months) and is well worth a stop.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.