About 50 miles west of the Arizona-New Mexico state line on old Route 66 lies Petrified Forest National Park. Created from ancient river beds and inland lakes, the area is known as the Painted Desert because of its colorful sandstone and mudstone deposits.
What sets it apart from other desert landscapes are its numerous petrified forests, created when the plant material from trees was replaced with quartz over millions of years. Today, the park glistens with multi-hued rock layers and exposed fossils, enticing visitors to explore an out-of-this-world setting for a closer view of nature’s handiwork.
Why Visit Petrified Forest National Park in Your RV?
The park is a perfect destination for RVers, with navigable paved roads and spacious pull-outs. Many hikers love the idea of heading off into the hills for an hour or two and returning to the comfort of their RV for shade and a bite of lunch before cruising to the next park highlight.
The park encompasses over 221,000 acres and is home to hundreds of plants, animals, fossils, and rock formations. As of June 2018, the park achieved International Dark Sky Park status. It is also one of the few national parks allowing leashed dogs on most trails.
When to Visit Petrified Forest National Park
The park is open year-round, but with a location in the middle of the Arizona desert, temperatures range from above 100℉ to below freezing. This semi-arid desert grassland is home to plants and animals that know how to adapt to these extremes, so you’ll need to be able to as well.
Petrified Forest National Park in the Spring
Because hiking is popular here, spring is an optimum time for visitors. March highs get up to the mid-60s, but that average goes up to the high-70s by May. Low temps can still dip below freezing in the early spring but typically raise to the mid-40s by May. Spring is also one of the driest times of the year in the park.
Petrified Forest National Park in the Summer
The daytime high temperatures might be less pleasant for a visit during the summer months. Although warm, much of the park’s 10 inches of annual rainfall arrives during the summer in the form of dramatic thunderstorms.
Summer highs top out in the low 90s from June through August, and low temperatures rarely drop past the mid-50s. June and July are the wettest months, with an average of five days of rainfall each.
Petrified Forest National Park in the Fall
Cooling temperatures make fall another popular time to visit Petrified Forest. Thunderstorms can be more frequent than in the spring, but average highs stay in the mid-80s through September before dropping into the low 60s by November.
Petrified Forest National Park in the Winter
Winter can bring surprise snowstorms on occasion, but these are typically infrequent. Although it’s a desert environment, average daytime highs only rise into the high-40s or low 50s during the winter months, while the coldest month (January) sees an average low of 23℉.
Where to Stay
There are no campgrounds within Petrified Forest National Park. Backcountry camping is allowed at least one mile from two designated parking areas with a permit, which can be obtained for free at a visitor center. Permits are issued daily until 4:30 PM.
Group size is limited to eight people, but there’s plenty to explore on foot. You can head out and camp in the park’s northern or southern wilderness areas and get away from motorized vehicles and bicycles on the park’s main road.
Staying Outside the Park
Surrounding towns like Holbrook and Joseph City have private campgrounds where RVs are welcome. Here are a few:
- Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA: Located in Holbrook, about 25 minutes from the visitor center. It Offers tent and RV campsites, a pool, snack bar, camp kitchen, and a dog park.
- OK RV Park: Located in Holbrook, about 25 minutes from the visitor center. Provides 30 and 50-amp hookups and pull-thru sites. Laundry service is onsite, along with a clubhouse.
- GreatSky CampRanch: Located in Show Low, about 70 minutes south of the visitor center.
Tips for your Camping Stay
For backcountry camping or day visits to Petrified Forest, here are a few tips to help you make the most of your visit:
- Any collection of petrified wood, plants, and other objects is prohibited.
- Bring a backpacking or camping stove, as wood and charcoal fires aren’t permitted.
- Pack out any food waste and trash you pack in and follow all other Leave No Trace principles to protect this fragile desert environment.
- A minimum of one gallon of water per person per day is recommended for summer visits.
- Research current conditions and possible closures before your visit.
How to Get Around Petrified Forest National Park
Getting to Petrified Forest National Park is pretty straightforward. It is located in the northeastern part of Arizona and is accessible via Interstate 40 at exit 311. The Visitors Center is about a mile north of the highway, but the park has regions that run north of the interstate and as far south as Highway 180.
Traveling around the park requires a car or RV. No motorized vehicles are allowed on park trails; however, horses are permitted in the Painted Desert Wilderness. There is no public transportation available in the area.
Petrified Forest National Park has incredibly unique examples of geology, archaeology, and paleontology within the national park system. You will come away from your visit with a sense of awe at what Mother Nature has accomplished here.
Places to Go in Petrified Forest National Park
There are plenty of interesting places to visit inside Petrified Forest National Park. Here are some of the must-see spots.
Painted Desert Inn
Once known as the Stone Tree House, this National Historic Landmark was originally created from petrified wood. In the 1930s, it was remodeled with the stucco façade seen today. It serves as a museum and art gallery.
Painted Desert Visitors Center
Part of a 23-building complex, the Visitors Center encompasses a self-contained community with a gas station, residences, maintenance shop, restaurant, gift shop, restrooms, and information center. Visitors can enjoy park videos and ranger-led tours here.
One of many ancient houses within the park that replicate the year-round residences once used by navtive people who lived in the area. The structures were built from stacked petrified wood, offering shelter from the often-harsh conditions. This one is in the park’s Rainbow Forest region.
An area of the park that includes over 650 petroglyphs that were created by ancient Native Americans that lived in the region.
Petrified Forest is the only national park through which the legendary Route 66 highway passes through. Remnants of “The Mother Road” can still be seen in a line of telephone poles along the old road bed.
Pueblo people wandered this area up until the 1300s and built a series of structures that housed around 200 people until drought and unknown forces caused them to abandon their homes. The foundation of this pueblo complex can be explored in the park.
Things to Do in Petrified Forest National Park
There are not only cool places to see in the park, but there’s also plenty to do. Here are some recreational activities to enjoy while visiting.
There are dozens of hiking trails throughout the Painted Desert. Here are a few of the most popular options:
- Blue Forest Trail
- Billings Gap Overlook
- Martha’s Butte
- Onyx Bridge
- Devil’s Playground (permit required)
- Jasper Forest
- First Forest Point
The Painted Desert Wilderness Access Trail is two miles north of the Visitors Center and has ample parking for horse trailers. There are no designated trails, but riders are asked to leave minimal impact on the area by traveling through dry washes when possible. Camping permits are available for overnight stays in the area.
Petrified Forest National Park has created several geocaches throughout the park, including virtual, traditional, and earth caches. They participate in the “Find Your Park Geo Tour,” and parking has been made accessible near all coordinates.
The park is a backpacker’s paradise, as you can essentially spend the night anywhere amongst the petrified logs as long as you’re more than a half-mile away from your vehicle. Get a free camping permit at the visitor center or Rainbow Forest Museum and ask rangers for instructions on where to backpack throughout the park.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
Desert living can be different if you’re not accustomed. These tips will help you make the most of your visit to this beautiful part of Arizona.
- Water is gold here in the middle of the desert. Fill your tank and bring an extra water cooler to stay hydrated during your stay.
- Shade is also hard to come by, so bring an instant canopy or shelter to escape the sun.
- If backpacking, you’ll need the right tent and a sleeping bag that’s designed for the season.
- Pets are allowed anywhere except in park buildings. Just make sure Fido is on a leash at all times.
- The park does boast gift shops, bookstores, a convenience store, a gas station, and grab-and-go food options. Research park goods and services before you arrive.
- A quality pair of hiking shoes and trekking poles will help you navigate the park’s backcountry terrain.
Brief History of Petrified Forest National Park
The history of this arid landscape has included human occupation for the last 13,000 years and started with nomadic natives. More recently, pueblo peoples lived in villages built from rocks and petrified trees until drought drove them away.
It wasn’t until the 1500s that the name of this desert, “El Desierto Pintado,” was coined by Spanish explorers looking for travel routes.
By the mid-1800s, US Army Lt. Amiel Whipple led a group of surveyors through the region, searching for trails to the Pacific Ocean. He left us with the first known documentation about the petrified wood found along what he referred to as Lithodendron Creek (Stone Tree Creek).
In 1857, others followed Whipple’s trail, building a wagon road and using camels as pack animals. However, what was considered a grand experiment fizzled out when the government refused to invest in camel travel. Once the road was improved, settlers soon followed, and ranches began to sprout throughout the area.
The early 1900s brought naturalists and scientists to Petrified Forest as word spread regarding the vast number of fossils in the area. John Muir originally came to Arizona for his daughter’s health, but later returned to California with a small collection of fossils.
Annie Alexander and Dr. Charles Camp oversaw fossil expeditions, and H.P. Mera recorded 87 archaeological sites within today’s park boundaries. After all of these scientific discoveries, it’s easy to see why President Theodore Roosevelt protected the area as Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906.
But it took another 56 years for the National Park Service to upgrade its status to a national park on December 6th, 1962.