The direction you choose for the scenic drive depends on which way you're traveling on I-40. If you're coming from the west, take U.S. 180 east from Holbrook to the park's south entrance, drive through the park, then rejoin I-40 at the park's north entrance. Coming from the east, do the opposite, driving through the park from the north and exiting onto U.S. 180 at the south end. Trails mentioned here are discussed in "Day Hikes," below.
1. If you enter the park from the south entrance, you'll start at the Rainbow Forest Museum. Behind the museum is the Giant Logs Self-Guided Trail, the first of several easy trails through the forests of petrified wood.
2. Leave your vehicle at the museum parking area. Just past the museum, you'll see an access trail to the Long Logs and the Agate House trail heads. The Agate House Trail ends at a prehistoric pueblo made of petrified wood. Forking to the left, the Long Logs Trail winds among some of the longest and most spectacular petrified trees in the area.
3. Continuing, you'll come to the Crystal Forest, where visitors in the late 1800s discovered ground covered with sparkling bits of petrified wood. At that time, the petrified logs in this area were flecked with quartz and purple amethyst crystals. The crystals attracted gem hunters, some of who went so far as to dynamite the trees. Although many crystals and the smaller pieces are gone, some colorful logs remain.
4. Next comes Jasper Forest, an overlook from atop a 150-foot-high bluff. This is a great place to observe the various effects of erosion. Looking downhill, you'll notice that large chunks of sandstone and petrified wood have tumbled from the bluff to the desert floor. Soft clay eroded out from under the harder wood and sandstone, undermining it and sending it downhill. Because erosion continues, someday the rocks underfoot will tumble down as well.
5. The first thing you'll notice at Agate Bridge is the remarkable bridge itself. With each end firmly embedded in sandstone, a petrified log forms a natural bridge across an arroyo that cuts through the ground underneath its midsection. The next thing you'll probably notice is the concrete span that "supports" it. In 1917, workers who wanted to preserve the bridge as a tourist attraction buttressed it with concrete.
6. Next, a short loop trail takes you to Blue Mesa. Like all the badlands in the park, Blue Mesa consists of soft rocks that can erode at the rate of 3 inches a decade -- fast enough to change appreciably in the span of a human lifetime. The Blue Mesa Trail, one of the prettiest walkways in the park, descends from the fourth and last overlook on the spur road.
7. Next comes the turnoff for conical badlands known as the Tepees. The flat rocky surface you see is called desert pavement, created when strong winds sweep away the fine sands of the desert floor, exposing small stones and petrified-wood fragments.
8. From an overlook 2 miles past the Tepees, you can look down on Newspaper Rock. Early inhabitants pecked dozens of petroglyphs into the dark surface of the stone. Among them is an image of the famous humpbacked flute player, Kokopelli. The petroglyphs in this area aren't limited to Newspaper Rock, so be sure to scan the surrounding rocks with your binoculars.
9. With so many petroglyphs around Newspaper Rock, it seems inevitable that a prehistoric dwelling is nearby. Sure enough, a mile down the road is Puerco Pueblo, the remains of a 100-room pueblo occupied by the ancestral Puebloans from 1250 to about 1400. To see this dwelling, walk the easy .3-mile loop trail.
10. The newest pullout in the park focuses on a more recent era: the heyday of Route 66. Here you can pose with an old Studebaker and read an interpretive plaque about the Mother Road before moving on.
11. The remaining stops between Puerco Pueblo and the Painted Desert Visitor Center are overlooks of the Painted Desert. Each one affords a unique view, but the panorama from the hilltop at Pintado Point may be the most spectacular. Just past Pintado Point is Chinde Point, where you'll find sheltered picnic tables, restrooms (open seasonally), and another overlook.
12. A quarter of a mile past Chinde Point is the turnoff for Kachina Point and the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark. Here you can descend into the desert on the Painted Desert Wilderness Trail or, if the drop seems a bit imposing, hike to Tawa Point on the Painted Desert Rim Trail. After hiking, be sure to visit the landmark itself.