Petrified Forest National Park lies to the South of I-40 with a sign posted exit but can also be accessed from US180 which runs from Holbrook to St Johns. It is possible to drive through the park end to end if using the other exit fits with travel plans.
As the name suggests the park preserves the remains of prehistoric trees which through a process of mineralisation have turned to colourful rock. What is preserved ranges from colorful shards through to substantial logs. The remarkable thing is that the bark, knots and branch ends are clearly discernible. The park sits within the landscape of the painted desert where the low hills of the Chinle formation forms an alien multicoloured landscape. The layers of the Chinle formation are largely related to ancient river and lake deposits and the colours derive from the differing minerals concentrations in the layers. This is best appreciated after rain as the moisture highlights the banded coloured layers in the landscape.
The park is well organised with a paved road running end to end. Pull outs are provided to park at named viewing areas in the park. The petrified forest is concentrated at the Southern end of the park whereas the Northern end focussed on the Painted Desert.
Sadly the Petrified Forest shrinks year by year as fragments of wood are collected by visitors, despite this being clearly illegal. The cumulative impact of the removal of even the smallest pieces of wood is significant. The difference between my first visit 25 year ago and now is sadly highly visible. If you want a souvenir the Fred Harvey Store at the Painted Desert Plaza has a range of petrified wood all of which is source outside of the park. There are also other suppliers some of whom are situated close to the Southern entrance to the park.
To appreciate the park I’d recommend stopping at the Rainbow Forest visitor centre situated at the Southern end of the park. If you are really limited for time the “Giant Logs” trail directly behind the visitor centre provides a short (0.4 mile) but good introduction passing some of the largest and best logs in the park.. A leaflet is available for the self guided trail.
Leaving the visitor centre and continuing along the road into the park, the 1.6 mile “Long Logs” trail passes many substantial preserved logs. The “Crystal Forest” forest trail further along the road is sadly a shadow of its former self due to the illegal collecting referred to above.
I’d highly recommend the Blue Mesa trail as this drops down onto the floor of the desert and shows how the logs emerge out of the eroding clay hills. The landscape is for this reason dynamic and provides more of a sense of the vast scale of geological time than the other park trails.
Mid way between the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert you will find newspaper rock. All sides of this large sandstone boulder are covered with Petroglyphs showing that this place clearly had some significance in pre historic times. Viewing is now only from above but there are spotting scopes at the overlook to allow a closer look at the art.
Petroglyphs can also be seen at the partially excavated Puerco Pueblo which is situated at the end of a signposted side road. A short trail runs round the ruins.
This area of the park consists of a series of overlooks that are adjacent to the road. I think that a better appreciation of this landscape can be gained by following the Blue Mesa trail referred to above.At the end of the road you will find the Painted Desert Visitor centre that has the usual interpretive displays and a selection of relevant books for sale. Adjacent to the visitor centre is a gift store and small cafeteria run by the Fred Harvey company. Petrified wood can be purchased here and also a selection of native american craft work.
As always the National Parks Service has an excellent website that can be accessed here.