Visiting the Petrified Forest National Park

Carri Wilbanks, Special for USA TODAY

Screen shot 2014-05-11 at 1.00.37 PMThe Petrified Forest is much more than simply another park – it’s the crossroads for more than 13,000 years of history. The ancient landscape in north-eastern Arizona is a stunning natural playground for hikers, climbers and other intrepid explorers, and a sanctuary of fascinating archaeological sites revealing a glimpse into the lives of those who first settled the land.

Known for impressive deposits of petrified wood and Late Triassic fossils, the Petrified Forest is a dream destination for geologists, historians, biologists, and outdoor enthusiasts. More than 52,000 acres of wilderness await your exploration. This national park acts as a gateway to the Prehistoric Age; to this day, scientists are still discovering new fossils.

Outdoor Activities: Stroll along one of the park’s seven well-maintained trails, which offer breathtaking views at every turn. The national park trails range from half a mile to nearly three miles, so no matter what your skill level, you can find a hike that suits you.

Park rangers offer guided tours of some of the park’s most fascinating features, such as the remains of an ancestral Puebloan village. Pets are allowed on the developed park trails, but make sure to clean up after Fido and keep him leashed at all times.

Fans of geocaching – an activity that links explorers around the world as they search for “treasure” – will want to check out the Historic Route 66 Geocaching Project. Modern day Indian Jones types use GPS and a trusty park map to find loot along famed Route 66.

For something a little less strenuous, try your hand at plein air (French for “open air”) painting or take advantage of the park’s many bird watching opportunities. Attend one of the cultural demonstrations with regional Native American artists such as Hopi potters and Navajo weavers. Or, saddle up and go horseback riding (provided you bring your own steed).

Staying Around the Park: The closest community to the park is Holbrook, which is about 30 minutes away and offers plenty of food and lodging choices. There are no hotels or campgrounds within the park, but you can backpack independently within the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area. Visit the Painted Desert Visitor Center or the Rainbow Forest Museum to obtain the free permit that allows you to spend the night in the park.

There are also a few choices for campgrounds near the park, such as the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, the Coconino National Forest and the Blue Water State Park.

Iconic Features of the Park: Thousands of acres of scenic wilderness provide many must-see features. Discover where the Painted Desert got its name when you gaze upon its surreal and dream-like landscape of rugged rock formations colored shades of rose, slate, umber, orange and crimson. Visit the Painted Desert Inn, which is packed with history-laden stories about railroad tourism, Route 66, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Old Trails Highway and more.

Another popular feature of the park is the Puerco Pueblo, an ancient village from the 13th and 14th century. One of the fascinating petroglyphs lines up perfectly with the sunrise during the summer solstice. Wander through the Rainbow, Crystal, Jasper and Black Forests to view a high concentration of petrified logs. The Agate House, a 900-year-old Pueblo built from petrified wood, is another iconic feature.

Park Wildlife: While exploring the park, keep an eye out for some of the many animals that live here. You’ll find pronghorns, prairie dogs, collared lizards, mule deer, bobcats, tarantulas, Rufus hummingbirds, black-tailed jackrabbits, golden eagles and many more species hiding in plain sight. The season and weather affect which animals you are likely to see. (Tip: Visit the park at dawn or dusk as many species are more active during these times.)

Hiking at the Park: There are many well-maintained trails throughout Petrified Forest National Park. Stay on the trails for your own safety (to avoid dangerous cliffs) as well as to prevent damage and erosion to the delicate grassland environment. A great trail to start with is the Giant Logs trail, which is a quick 0.4-mile loop snaking past some of the most colourful logs in the park. The Blue Mesa Trail is a one-mile loop winding through stunning landscapes of grey, purple and blue badlands scattered with ancient petrified wood.

If you’re tempted to venture off the trails, take a look at these Off the Beaten Path routes, which will take you through the backcountry to see some of the more remote areas, such as Billings Gap and Martha’s Butte.

Park Drives: To explore the park by car, take the scenic drive along the park’s one road stretching 28 miles between the two park entrances. You’ll be treated to unforgettable views, from the massive petrified logs at Crystal Forest to the red rocks of the Painted Desert.

Blue Mesa is a great driving trip, down a spur road around four miles round trip. If you continue along the main park road, you will find additional overlooks with parking areas, such as Pintado, Whipple Points, Kachina, Newspaper Rock and Jasper Forest. There aren’t many places where you can venture 13,000 years into the past, so take your time drinking in the breathtaking desert landscape of Petrified Forest National Park during your visit.

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