Visiting the Petrified Forest National Park almost didn’t happen for us on this trip. It was a miscalculation on my part. I thought we could squeeze in two longer stops in one day; the Petroglyph National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park. I didn’t account for traffic, travel between visits, and time changes. Planning this part of the trip was a rooky mistake. The combination of all of this led us to the Petrified Forest National Park gates an hour before closing.
How Much Time Do You Need In The Park?
The Petrified Forest National Park is the goldilocks of national parks regarding its size and how easy it is to navigate. The park is a 28-mile road that runs North to South. Without stopping at any of the 12 highlights attractions on our guide map, it would take us 45 minutes to drive the park’s length. The park ranger at the visitor center said that if we made it to the Blue Mesa stop by the time the park closed, we would be allowed to exit at the South entrance and not need to turn back towards the North. Like contestants on The Amazing Race, we ran to the car to start our journey through the park.
According to the National Park Service, to thoroughly see everything in the park, plan to spend at least half a day. Most of the trails in the park are less than a mile long and the paths are clearly defined. It’s important to consider the amount of time you will be left hypnotized by the landscape. My brain was in awe of the amount of color and beauty I saw in the middle of the desert. The deep canyon of the Painted Desert looked like a layered cake made up of terracotta earth sprinkled with green plant life. To say the least, it was difficult to pull myself away.
What Are The Must-See Stops If You’re Short On Time?
There are 12 highlighted attractions throughout the park and many lookout points scattered between them, but not all are created equal.
The Visitor Center – is a must to use the bathroom, fill up on gas, pick up your national park souvenirs, and ask a park ranger or volunteer for any suggestions or help. The Petrified Forrest was no exception when it came to the staff being extremely helpful; this has been a recurring trend when visiting the National Parks.
Painted Desert Overlooks – There are four overlooks in a short distance. We picked the least cowed one, sprang from the car, and snapped a few quick selfies. Aaron had to pull me back into the car because I couldn’t believe after hours of traveling through the beige and seemingly lifeless desert, the earth would open up to reveal a glimpse of its past life in the most colorful way. The Painted Desert is like a woven tapestry of vibrant earth tone colors seamlessly blending from light to dark.
Newspaper Rock – If we did get our fill of petroglyphs at the Petroglyph National Monument, there were more ancient messages carved into the rock faces at the sixth stop along the route.
Blue Mesa – This stop is the pièce de résistance of the whole park. The ground is most literally blue! The layers of sediment change from brown to light blue, streaked with contrasting ribbons of orange. It reminded me of the inside of an ice cream carton after you’ve taken out the first scoop revealing the delicious combination of ingredients hidden inside. Stepping out of the car at Blue Mesa is when I kicked myself for not having enough time to do the short one-mile hike. However, I was relieved that we made it to this point at all; this meant we could continue south toward the exit and see the remaining stops.
Agate Bridge – South of Blue Mesa is where you will start seeing petrified wood. The first glimpse of this ancient wood is at Agate Bridge, a large log resting over a gully as if it had been placed there on purpose. Although an artificial concrete foundation now supports the log, the wood detail is still prominent in the texture of the petrified wood.
Crystal Forest – If you want to get up close and personal with the petrified wood, this is your stop. At this point, Aaron and I had slowed down a bit to take in this stop. There is a .75 mile walking path lined with petrified wood. We walked along the trail taking up-close photos of the marbled detail of the quartz encrusted logs. Each one was shimmered brighter than the last. We were able to walk along the path for quite a while before the Park Rangers showed up to tell everyone it was time to exit the park.
We slowly drove towards the south exit. Just before we exited the park, we took one last photo at the South Entrance Sign. Although we both wish we had more time for hiking, we were grateful for the amount of the park we did explore. The National Parks are the best way to learn about the fantastic world in which we live. If we find ourselves on I-40 in the future, we will plan accordingly to spend more time in the Petrified Forest National Park.