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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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.)

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.

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

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.

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.


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