As part of our recent Albuquerque adventure, we decided that we should not skip a visit to nearby Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Having never visited Arizona before, we were excited to see what this National Park had to offer. However, as we headed farther and farther west down Interstate-40, we were straining to see something – anything – that resembled a National Park. Besides a few bluffs and plateaus, we weren’t sure what all the fuss was about. It was just flat, scrubby landscape.
Despite this, we’ve visited enough National Parks now to realize that there’s usually something awesome just around the corner.
Sure enough, as we took the exit to the park and drove up to the visitor center, we started to catch a glimpse of the Painted Desert. That’s when we realized this would be another amazing place to explore.
Before we knew it, we had spent an entire day in the park. We could have easily stayed even longer if it weren’t for closing time.
Read on to find out how to spend a great day in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert.
Related: Do you love National Parks like we do? Be sure to check out our page on America’s National Parks.
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A Day in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert.
Painted Desert Visitor Center
Once you’ve exited the Interstate, your first stop should be the Painted Desert Visitor Center (however, there is also a south entrance to the park). Get your National Park cancellation stamps, grab a map, and head out. The park is laid out so that there is essentially one road from one end of the park to the other, with lots of stops, overlooks, and features along the way.
If you have a 4th grader in the family, be sure to sign up for Every Kid in a Park. This federal program allows for free admission to parks, seashores, monuments, etc., that fall under the care of the National Park Service. You can read more about the program here.
Arizona’s Painted Desert
As you begin your journey from the visitor center, you will immediately see the Painted Desert, and it’s a jaw-dropper! While you can’t see it from the Interstate, the Painted Desert surprised us with its vivid colors and unique shapes. There are several overlooks along the first few miles of the road, and each one offers up a view you’ll want to get out of the car for.
Plan on getting out and hiking a few of the short trails if you can because the vistas are incredible! There’s nothing better than some fresh air and views like this.
Make a stop at the Painted Desert Inn to explore some cool history and to set out on one of the scenic trailheads.
While you’ll be tempted to soak it all in, you have to pace yourself. There are 26 miles between the Painted Desert Visitor Center and the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center at the southern entrance of the park, and you’ll definitely want to spend some time exploring that area before the park closes.
Looking for a little more inspiration? Check out our two favorite books on America’s National Parks. They’re great for planning your next park visit!
As you head further into the park, you’ll discover more about why this park is unique, including the petrified wood that is its namesake.
As you take in some of these landscapes, you might wonder if you’ve been transported to another planet.
Further down the road is the Agate Bridge, which is an enormous petrified tree that has fallen and spans a gully. The kids loved climbing around this area of the park.
Puerco Pueblo is an ancient Pueblo village site that existed in the 1300’s. The trail to explore this site is short and mostly paved. Here you’ll be able to see the ruins of the site, as well as petroglyphs and other signs of Pueblo culture.
Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center
Eventually, you’ll arrive at the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center. Plan on spending some time at this museum to learn about the geologic history of this park and to hike the trails around the museum. This is where you can find some incredible examples of the forest that used to exist here. The kids had a blast climbing and rambling around the logs and trees. It’s an impressive way to end your visit to the park.
Love National Parks? Read about all of Arizona's National Parks here.
If you have time, come back to Blue Mesa on your way out of the park as the sun is setting. You’ll see some incredible colors and get some beautiful photos.
There are some great trails in the area that provide some unforgettable views. It was a highlight of our day here in Petrified Forest National Park.
Getting to Petrified Forest National Park
The park has a north and south entrance with about 30 miles in between the two. Visitors from the north will take exit 311 on Interstate 40. The south entrance can be reached from state highway 180.
Petrified Forest National Park Hours
The park is open all year, except on Christmas Day. The main road and the visitor centers are open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Entrance Fees for Petrified Forest National Park
Auto/7-day park pass – $20.00
Bike/per person – $10.00 (per person)
Motorcycle – $15.00 (flat fee)
Petrified Forest National Park Annual Pass – $40.00
Petrified Forest National Park camping
Backcountry camping is allowed at the park and permits are free. Check here for more information.
Petrified Forest National Park Hotels
There are no hotels within the park. However, lodging can be found in the nearby town of Holbrook about twenty minutes west of the Rainbow Forest Museum on highway 180.
Albuquerque, New Mexico is about a 3-hour drive east on I-40 and is where we drove from to visit the park. Be sure to read about our adventures in Albuquerque here.
Petrified Forest National Park – another great family adventure!
We hope we’ve inspired you to visit this awesome park. It’s easy to get to, and can be explored in a day, which makes it ideal for families (especially road-tripping families!).
Have you visited Petrified Forest before? What was your favorite part?
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