Visiting the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert

painted desert Petrified Forest kids viewThe Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona (which also contains the Painted Desert) is right on Route 66 so  if you’re travelling along on a road trip there’s no need to head too far off from where you are for this sight.

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And what a sight it was!

It was an overcast day for us, the first on our Route 66 trip, which meant on the upside that it wasn’t overly hot for exploring, but on the downside it meant that I don’t think we saw the desert at it’s best.  I could see that the colours would be magnificent on a sunny day or possibly with that early morning or evening light.

The Petrified Forest National Park (why does this always sound like I’m going in to a Harry Potter book?) felt huge but I think in comparison to some other National Parks in the US it’s probably on the smaller side.


Visiting the Petrified Forest – what you need to know

The park is accessed directly off I-40, exit 311, which is also the old Route 66 if you’re road tripping that.  The cost for one car was $20 in 2014 and this is still current in 2018.  This covers you for a 7 day period if you want to base yourself in the area and spend more time there.  If you’re looking for those perfect photography shots and want to come back at different times of the day then this is great!

With that in mind – the park is open from 7 am – 6pm which includes the visitor centres.  Be aware that Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings and so the time is Mountain Standard Time all year round.

As a newbie to US National Parks we weren’t sure what to expect so perhaps this is a given, but this is a perfect place to come if you’re unfit, not sure if you want to walk much, not able to walk much or if you have young kids who might get bored easily.  The reason for this is that it is super car friendly and has a road that goes all the way round with plenty of stopping spots for you and your car.  You can get out, take pics, explore a little if you’re in an area this is allowed or just enjoy from the comfort of your car.


petrified forest arizona new mexico

There are a few visitor centres in the park so plenty of areas to learn more, have some refreshments or use the facilities.  The first one as you arrive has a large shop, cafe and some exhibits.  The one in the picture above is called the Painted Desert Inn and is about half way round the road and is a typical building style of the area.  This is actually an old stopping point on Route 66 but now is no longer accommodation but is a museum

petrified forest national park kidsInside the Painted Desert Inn the kids collected some ‘souvenirs’ in the form of stamps and we also learned that we could even become junior rangers at the park!  This seemed fun, even to me as they said there was no age limit to being a junior ranger!  Bring it on!

Finally, towards the end of the Park Road you’ll find the Rainbow Forest museum.  Again this has lots of things to do and learn about – at this part there are loads of petrified logs that are accessible.  When we were there we asked about the Junior Ranger programme and were given a workbook to complete.  If we completed it and could take the oath at the end we could become Junior Rangers!

Petrified Forest for kids

We visited with a 14 and 12 year old and I’d say it was perfect for them and would be a great place to visit for all kids.  We home educate (we’re home schoolers) and so having this place to learn about first hand was perfect – we adore nature and having something so different to what we have back home in the UK was great.

There’s loads of opportunities to learn at the park with exhibits that are geared to all age levels.  The park is also super accessible as I said before so if you have very small kids who don’t walk lots you’ll still get lots out of it.

Becoming a Junior Ranger

I’d highly recommend doing this if you have kids or if you’re just interested in it – my kids loved doing it and it has remained one of the things they remembered fondly about our trip.

petrified forest logs

The workbook made us really engage with what was around the park and after learning lots of about the logs and about the area, we headed back in to see if we made the grade and could become Junior rangers.  The Park Ranger asked us lots of questions and finally asked us to take an oath to look after nature and the State Parks.  That was it – we were officially Junior Rangers (and we did the same at the Grand Canyon – I was hooked – when can I come back and do some more?)

The best bit – it was free!


junior park ranger



The Petrified Forest and Route 66

route 66 sign petrified forest arizona


As we were doing Route 66 we were interested in the history of that alongside the park and there was plenty of mentions of the mother road.  It really did feel like it was an era gone by, never to return again with rusty cars left as a monument to the time.  In the picture below you can just see the telephone wires which apparently ran alongside Route 66 in the past.

old car rusty petrified forest new mexico route 66


Trails and hiking in the Petrified Forest

We stuck to the road on our visit as none of us are really that great at hiking and we’d not brought great shoes to do anything too much.  However there are some really easy and short trails that we did enjoy at various stops around the park – most were less than a mile long so really no hardship.

There are some options for hiking more in the park and getting a bit more out of the way of the crowds (not that it was really that busy when we were there) – take a look here or ask at the visitors centre if you’re interested in this.


Overall we loved our visit here and highly recommend it – such a beautiful place!

Getting to the Petrified Forest

petrified forest painted desertThe Petrified Forest and Painted Desert are based in Arizona and the entrance is on Interstate 40 at exit 311.  If you’re travelling Route 66 you’ll not miss it!  For more information about the State Park check out their official site.


Where to stay when visiting the Petrified Forest

The best place to stay when visiting is going to depend on where you’re headed if you’re on a road trip or if you just want to be as close as possible.

If you want to be close then the nearest town, which is on the West side of the park, is Holbrook which is around 20-30 mins drive away on I-40.

When we visited we stayed in Holbrook at the very iconic (I know it’s bandied about a lot but this place was pretty cool) Wigwam Motel.  It’s a fairly basic motel but one that’s fun and if you like your old cars and retro americana this is the place for you as outside each wigwam is a classic car that you can take photos of.

The Wigwam Motel can get booked up pretty quickly so if you need another option I’d suggest Brad’s Desert Inn which is just along the street from the wigwams which allows you to still pack in some photo opportunities!  It’s got free breakfast too which is one of my favourite things!

Other places you might want to consider staying at is the Heritage Inn at Snowflake (I so want to visit a town with this name!) which looks stunning and just like an American country hotel would look like to me.  This is located south of the park.

On the East side and heading in to New Mexico I’d recommend Gallup – when we stayed there we went in the cheap and cheerful Red Roof Inn which was ok, but nothing super special.   There are a number of good hotels in the town though so lots to choose from.


There are options for backcountry camping inside the park and permits are free – check out their site for more info on this.


Interested in Route 66?  Check out my other posts:

Finding the Mother Road and our journey on Route 66 begins!

Arizona Route 66 Attractions

Exploring Route 66 in Texas

New Mexico on Route 66

Route 66 on a budget – how we kept costs down

Route 66 to Grand Canyon

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The Petrified Forest National Park is a great day trip if you're visiting Arizona. It also has Route 66 cut right through it so one not to miss if you're travelling the road - loads of old history to learn about too. #nationalparks #usatravel #arizonatravel

The Petrified Forest National Park is a great day trip if you're visiting Arizona. It also has Route 66 cut right through it so one not to miss if you're travelling the road - loads of old history to learn about too. #nationalparks #usatravel #arizonatravel

The Petrified Forest National Park is a great day trip if you're visiting Arizona. It also has Route 66 cut right through it so one not to miss if you're travelling the road - loads of old history to learn about too. #nationalparks #usatravel #arizonatravel

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