See why Petrified Forest National Park is a magical detour from I-40

With beautiful landscapes and fascinating history, a drive through Petrified Forest National Park is a welcome break from the monotony of I-40…

Oh, US 40. You go on… and on… and on. Sometimes it feels as if a person could drive all day and not see a single thing on this vast cross-country interstate. Well, as Route 66 lovers, we know there’s plenty to see and do just off the monotony of I-40. A prime example… Petrified Forest National Park of Arizona.

Underrated and under-appreciated, Petrified Forest National Park only adds a couple hours to your day and features everything from giant petrified logs to breathtaking painted deserts to ancient Native American drawings to the only part of Route 66 to trace through a national park.

How on earth can you just drive right by ALL that great stuff? We’ll show you how to knock the park out in just a couple hours with this down-and-dirty guide.

(This guide assumes you’re going east-to-west on I-40, if not, simply reverse the order and access the park via Holbrook, AZ)

When you first hop off the highway at Exit 311, it doesn’t seem like you’re in an area worthy of national park status. Quite frankly, it looks just as plain and boring as the last hour or so of your time on the highway.

Don’t let it deter you as there are some beautiful sights just a few miles up the road. First, however, we recommend stopping at the visitor center and gift shop at the north entrance to the park.

Visitor Center/Gift Shop/Diner/Convenience Store

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Depending on where you started your morning, the visitor center may be a perfect place to grab a snack or even a full lunch at the little diner in the back of the gift shop. It’s also your first chance to scope out the gift options or to buy books/DVDs/etc. on the park. For only $10, we recommend the guided audio tour. Each viewpoint and stop in the park will make a lot more sense with a little background info, and it’s timed almost perfectly with the 30 mile driving route of the park.






After fueling up on gifts and grub, you actually “enter” the park. For the first several miles, Petrified Forest National Park is actually more of a “painted desert” similar to that of the Badlands in South Dakota.

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While you could easily spend a full day exploring the park, we’re going to assume you’re a road tripper like us and need to keep moving. We’re going to highlight a few stops to make to ensure you get the most of the park but still make it back to the highway in only an hour or two.

Painted Desert Inn

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Originally constructed of mostly petrified wood in the 1920s, the Painted Desert Inn welcomed travelers on Route 66 as one of the original “Harvey Houses” for many years before eventually falling into disrepair. Efforts to demolish the inn in the 1970s were thwarted, and the inn has subsequently been restored and now serves as a little museum featuring murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.

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Aside from the coolness of the Painted Desert Inn, it’s also your first major opportunity to get a glimpse of the “painted desert” portion of the park. Be sure to go down the walkway to the edge viewing platform to take in the vast beauty of the desert and its multiple colors.

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After a stop at the Painted Desert Inn, you’re welcome to make a stop or two on the northern arch of the drive for photos, but it’ll be similar scenery to your first stop.

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Route 66

Whether you’re headed west on a Route 66 adventure or just taking US 40 from point A to B, you’ll appreciate a little stop at where the “Mother Road” used to actually travel through the park. It’s the only “section” of Route 66 to dissect a U.S. National Park, and the original roadbed is marked by telephone poles as it stretches into the vast nothingness.

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It’s easy to imagine how the Painted Desert Inn became a popular oasis for Route 66 travelers as they crossed this unforgiving terrain.

There’s an old car bumper and even a rusty hulk of a 1932 Studebaker for pretty excellent photos.


Puerco Pueblo

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Here you’ll find a trail loop through a village dating back all the way to the 1200s where Puebloan people used to live along the Puerco River. As many as 200 people may have lived here in single-story dwellings made of sandstone blocks. As the climate changed and the river stopped giving life, the ancient people left this area. Today, only some bricks and petroglyphs remain, and you can walk right through the remains of this ancient village and view the petroglyphs from a couple different spots.






After Puerco Pueblo, you’ll find yourself driving through a stretch of beautiful bluffs very similar to the Badlands, but with a whiter tint.

Flickr/Michael Swigart

Through this stretch you’ll also start to notice big lumps popping up everywhere. Welcome to the Petrified Forest.

(Note: We don’t stop at Newspaper Rock as many suggest. If you saw the drawings at Puerco Pueblo, there’s no need. In our humble opinion, an extra stop at Newspaper isn’t worth the reward.)

Flickr/Jayjay P


And before you ask… Petrified wood is basically a tree that’s guts rotted out and were replaced by minerals and became a big hunk of fossil. Is this the scientific explanation? No, but hey, we’re not scientists.

Flickr/Andrew Kearns






You’re welcome to stop at any of the spots along the way, but if you’re short on time, just enjoy the scenery and head to your last stop in the park…

Giant Logs/Rainbow Forest

Flickr/Mike Fisher

For some of the most impressive examples of petrified wood in the park, wander through the “Giant Logs.” Here you’ll walk among truly remarkable examples of petrified wood as well as beautiful wildflowers.

When you’re finished, stop by the visitor center and gift shop for a little more info and any last minute gifts.


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From there, you’ll head on out of the park, hook a right turn, and head toward Holbrook, AZ. In town, you’ll find plenty of places to buy petrified wood and a great photo op at the legendary Wigwam Motel before finally hopping back on boring, ol’ I-40.

For more information on visiting Petrified Forest National Park, visit their website.


Cover photo by Andrew Kearns. His national park pictures are pretty epic. Browse them here.



One Comment on “See why Petrified Forest National Park is a magical detour from I-40

  1. There are some advantages to getting old, not the least of which is remembering the days before the government (and lawyers I suppose) felt it was their obligation to protect us from, well . . . ourselves. Allowing us to do stupid things back in the 50’s was fodder for great stories in later years. Case in point:

    I was about eight or so years old and traveling with my aunt, uncle, and cousin in their “Neapolitan” colored ’58 Desoto station wagon. We were following US Route 66, headed to California and Disneyland on vacation from our home in Eastern Pennsylvania.

    Late one afternoon we came across the Petrified Forest and the decision was made to drive through it. I remember my uncle talking to the rangers on duty. I suppose we paid an entrance fee (hey, eight year old’s don’t pay attention to that kind of thing) and we drove into the park.

    We drove up and down the well-traveled roads and even onto some of the less traveled lanes and saw great examples of the famous rock-like logs strewn over the acres surrounding us. My cousin and I had a ball scampering around and over the petrified trees. The setting sun’s orange light gave the area an eerie but beautiful radiance. We then drove back the main road to the ranger station where we had entered the park. Imagine our surprise when we saw there was a tall chain link gate closed across the road in front of us.

    My uncle then asked me to get out and open the gate. I eagerly hopped out but couldn’t open it. A little frustrated with my inability to open the gate, he humphed and roughly got out of the car. Once he got there he immediately saw the problem – it was padlocked. Being an avid weight lifter and body builder in his youth, he was still a powerful man and it seemed to me he tried to rip the gate off its cast iron hinges. Of course, the gate resisted his efforts. We were stuck.

    Once we realized our situation we collectively shrugged our shoulders and settled down for the night. Although surprised by the situation, we were not rattled by it. It wouldn’t be the first night we slept in the car this vacation, we always carried food and water with us (this was before there was a fast food place every half mile) and there was an outhouse behind the ranger station that was available to us.

    So, leaving the colorful station wagon parked smack dab in the middle of the road behind the gate, we ate our supper and prepared to bed down for the night. We had our assigned sleeping places. My cousin, being the smallest, slept on the front seat and after folding down the back seat, I slept in the back with my aunt and uncle.
    A little after sunrise, our little dog began barking. The rangers had returned for their shift. They opened the gate and began questioning us; “How did we get there?”, “How long had we been there?” and similar questions. We related our story. The guards were very apologetic saying they did their normal sweep of the park before locking up but never saw us. Once again, we collectively shrugged our shoulders as if to say not a big deal, we survived.
    We were safe and none the worse for wear, that is except for the dog. Before getting to sleep, she came back to the car with four or five porcupine quills sticking out her nose.

    Besides, it was a great story to tell our friends when we got home.

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