Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park – Arizona

Painted Desert Petrified Forest NP

Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert is one of the least visited National Parks. Not understanding why it’s not as popular as other National Parks, we think it should be one of your bucket list destinations when you’re visiting the southwest United States. Its’ unique and vibrant natural features will lead your curiosity into wondering how these remnants were once a forest in the desert today.

Petrified Forest National Park Pamphlet

Recollecting way back to my days as a young teenager, my mother, brother and I boarded a Greyhound bus from Erie, PA trekking across America destined for San Diego, California to visit family.  Not realizing the significance of a small piece of petrified wood I picked up in a souvenir store would lead to visiting the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert a few decades later.

We parked Liberty for a couple nights in Holbrook, Arizona. While there, we took a ride to go see what all the hoopla was in Winslow, Arizona’s iconic  “Standin’ on the Corner was all about.

The night before visiting Petrified Forest National Park, we researched what to expect and how to prepare ourselves for our self tour of the park (ie. weather, terrain, food/water availability, etc.).

Day trip to the Petrified Forest National Park

The next morning, we took our showers, ate breakfast, packed our box lunch, grabbed our hiking poles and headed out.


Once we got to the Park entrance, Dan presented his National Park Access Pass.  The jovial Park Ranger, eager to send us on our adventure, gave us our map and pamphlet, smiled and waved us through.

Our first posted was the Visitor’s Center to see where the best trails are, points of interest, etc.  Also, picking up a few post cards that I usually send out a year later.  We get our National Park Passport stamped for our alibis and proof that we visited.


Layers upon layers…

The first exhibit wasn’t very far up the road; the beginning of the Painted Desert.  Instantly, we realized why it was called the Painted Desert.

The Painted Desert is a desert of badlands in the Four Corners area from close to the east end of the Grand Canyon National Park and southeast into the Petrified Forest National Park.  Before we knew it, we were looking down into the massive bowl of vibrant sandstone layers. We felt so tiny in comparison to the vastness of the landscape.

The Painted Desert is known for its brilliant, variegated colors of red rock and purple hues.


Our next stop was the Painted Desert Inn; originally constructed of petrified wood dating back to the early 1920’s, It was renovated a decade later with adobe facade keeping the original design and motif.  Today, the Painted Desert Inn is a museum that displays Route 66, the workings of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the history of the building itself.

There were also some local featured artists showcasing their handcrafts and art to sell.

Reading the newspaper?

Our next stop was to see the Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs. This would be our very first in-person view petroglyphs.

However, we were disappointed when we arrived at the viewing station. Visitors are not permitted to hike down to see them up close as its part of the preservation of the Petroglyphs.

Unfortunately, from the viewing station, it was difficult to see them without the aid of binoculars. All was not lost though, I did use my DSLR Camera zoom lens to get a view of them.

To view them, click on each photo and then enlarge. Or, you can trust me in telling you that they really are there.



Along the hiking trail, there were trail placards showing that we weren’t alone…


We were greeted by this little guy…

We continued on the trail to more amazing geological wonders.


After finishing this trail, we trekked our way through more of the Park. The views were outstandingly spectacular. We were grateful for the beautiful sunny sky peppered with clouds to give us great Kodak views.

The wind-carved mounds reminded us of giant candy corns.

How the layered mounds are formed…

We learned the desert is composed of stratified layers of easily erodible shale, mudstone, and  siltstone from the Triassic Chinle Formation. These sandy rock layers contain abundant compounds of iron and manganese which give the mounds layered colors. The mesas are formed by volcanic lava and debris remnants and thin resistant lacustrine limestone layers. Numerous layers of silicic volcanic ash occur in the Chinle and provide the silica for the petrified logs of the area. The erosion of these layers has resulted in the formation of the badlands topography of the region.

So, in layman’s terms, the silica along with the arid climate is what dries the wood causing it to petrify.

There really isn’t very much vegetation there than occasional Sagebrush. The Painted Desert is a very barren and unforgiving place for growing green things.  But we did find these little pricklies; a species of the Cholla family.

The clock was ticking so we had to move on.  So, boarded Captain America and drove to our next stop.  I couldn’t looking in my side rear view mirror mesmerized by the pictoral beauty behind us.


We didn’t go but a few miles until we got our very first glimpse of the petrified log remnants just like the small stone-like souvenir I bought forty-some years prior. The petrified pieces were preserved in the layers of sandstone and silica over tens of thousands of years.


The further we went into the once-was forest, the more petrified wood we saw.  We parked and hiked the trail that meandered it’s way through a canyon of candy corn mounds and more petrified logs.
We trekked down to the bottom of the bowl and were surrounded by hoodoos, more layers and large sections of petrified wood stumps from trees.  Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rocks that have risen from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland…kind of like a stalagmite in a cave. They are carved by the wind.

We noticed this sign (below). There were plain-clothes Rangers walking the same trails; most likely to monitor theft. That left me wondering if that piece I bought in the souvenir shop decades ago was illegally acquired?  Maybe it was and that’s why they have these signs now.

We hope you’re enjoying our journey through our many photos…

Who cut the wood?

Before we continue, we want to show more of what we learned about the petrified wood.  As the wood petrifies, minerals contaminate the wood causing these beautiful colors and composition. They appear like quartz and the wood is hard as a rock. Through age, the minerals give the wood color.

I would have loved to have this piece.  It was so beautiful and vibrant with colors. But it belongs to the desert for everyone else to enjoy and learn about the land’s past.

Petrified Forest National Park now reigns as one of our favorite National Parks  because, there is no other like it. Sunset was nearing. The park was closing so we headed back to Liberty. The memory of this wonderful National Park will be etched in our memories forever just like the petrified wood etches into the desert southwest.


Check out our other National Park visits!

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