A forest in the middle of the Arizona desert sounds ridiculous, unless it's one of the sparkly gemstone woodlands of Petrified Forest National Park! It's definitely nothing like any other forest in the country, since all the wood has pretty much been turned into stone. The park is packed with hidden gems (quite literally, since the wood in the trees has been turned into various sparkly minerals) that anyone, from the outdoor enthusiast to the science geek, can enjoy.
Some tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park:
-This is one of America's smallest national parks, but its location right off the highway means that many people at least drive through it. Oh, and speaking of highway, a portion of old Route 66 is within the park, the only portion of the classic road to still be preserved within a national park. -There's no camping within the park, and it technically closes at 5PM (so don't plan on stopping if you're driving through the park then). Homolovi Ruins is right nearby and offers camping. -Don't be tempted by the glitter of the logs to snag a souvenir...it's very illegal. Also, don't climb on them, and if you purchase a box of petrified wood from a gift store, don't open it until you've left the park premises. The wood sold in gift stores comes from private land and is not from the park, and you don't want a ranger to think you're taking wood from the park illegally.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center is a good first stop on your tour of the park. It has an educational film, a gift shop, some bits on the park's history, and plenty of petrified wood. It's perfect for people who are just stopping by, maybe while traveling along Route 66.
The park is home to the famous Painted Desert Inn, and even though you can't spend the night here anymore, you should definitely stop in to check out the exhibits on the building (which was originally built of petrified wood, but was given an awesome makeover in the 1930's). It's easily one of the park's most photographable features.
For the best view to see why the Painted Desert is called the "painted" desert, head to Kachina Point. You can see the bands of different colored sediment in the rolling hills of the arid landscape...it's a once-in-a-lifetime view and a perfect photo op.
There's more to Petrified Forest than the sparkly logs, it's also an important archaeological and anthropological site. One of the best examples that you can visit is Puerco Pueblo, the ruins of a community of Pueblo people from the 1200's. It's hard to imagine that the sandstone ruins were once a bustling settlement of up to 200 people!
If all of that history has you working up an appetite, then head to Aliberto's, a local chain that serves up muy auténtico Mexican cuisine. If you only order one thing to eat while staying in the area, make it the green chile plate from Aliberto's, green chile is a local specialty, and you'll see why it's so popular around here.
For an authentic Route 66 experience, stay at the Wigwam Village Motel No. 6. One of only a few left standing, the Wigwam Village Motel in Holbrook is a classically kitschy Route 66 icon, it's been providing shelter to road trippers since the 1930's. Even if you don't stay, snap a picture here with one of the vintage cars across the property.
The Turquoise Room is a hidden gem located inside La Posada Hotel. It's a refreshingly different experience than the many diners and fast food joints that line the highways. Here, you can sit down and enjoy a nice meal that feels like something you might find in a big city, but still has Arizona flair. Hopi-inspired hummus, bison ossobuco, and prickly pear gelato are some of the more inventive dishes on the dinner menu. Bonus: they do breakfast and lunch, too!
For a Western vibe, book a room at La Posada Hotel, since it's a working train station/museum/boutique hotel built in an old, 1929 rail station. The individually-decorated rooms have funky Southwestern vibes, with handmade Ponderosa pine beds, art deco mosaic tiles and 6-foot cast iron tubs.
Back inside the park, you can also tour the Rainbow Forest Museum, with hands-on exhibits and tons on display, plus right behind the museum is one of the park's best hikes, along the Giant Logs Trail. If you're looking to get as much out of the park as possible in a short amount of time, make your way here.
Of course, watching educational videos and looking at displays is a good way to get background on the petrified wood, but nothing can compare to the experience of seeing it up close and in person. Many comment on how surprising it is to see just so many sparkly, colorful logs in one place! Hard to believe that these trees are 250 million years old, they've outlived the dinosaurs!
Native Americans were also familiar with the petrified wood found in the area. In fact, they used it in very much the way we use normal wood today, like to build the park's Agate House. The 8-room pueblo was likely built between 1050 and 1300, and was excavated in the 1930's. Petrified wood must make a good building material, since the house is in pretty good condition for being so old. You can see it for yourself by taking the two-mile round trip trail from the Rainbow Forest visitor center.
The Crystal Forest is a really easy hike along a paved walkway. The loop takes you past tons of petrified wood, which contains a lot of quartz, hence the name. It's only 3/4ths of a mile, but take your time, inspect the trees, and enjoy the painted desert views.
The one-mile Blue Mesa trail takes you further into the painted desert. where the hills take on hues of grey, purple, and blue. It's definitely not a typical desert landscape (seriously, it looks like you're on another planet), which makes it well worth a visit.
For a park that's less than 150 miles square, it's pretty impressive to think that over 600 archaeological sites have been found within Petrified Forest's boundaries. There are literally hidden gems on top of hidden gems crammed inside the park! The cryptic petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock are a prime example. More than 650 icons, drawn between 650 and 2,000 years ago, are scattered across several rocks. Visit them and try to decipher their meaning yourself.
The best time to visit Petrified Forest National Park: It can get really hot in the desert in the summer, and since there isn't a ton of shade here, a visit in the summer can mean heat and glaring sun. That being said, it does get cold and snowy in the winter, making it a less ideal time to visit. Wildflowers pop up throughout the desert between March and October, especially in May, July and August, so if you're looking for an extra colorful landscape, plan accordingly.