Painted Desert / Petrified Forest National Park | Arizona

On our drive back across the country, after spending several weeks in Arizona and California with family, we stopped at the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest National Park to check out the sights.  Petrified Forest National Park is technically located in the Painted Desert, so they’re not actually two separate parks- a visit to PFNP inherently includes going to the Painted Desert as well.

This was our seventh National Park/National Monument of the trip and the kids were definitely hooked- they all decided to include seeing all of the National Parks to their bucket lists.

It was hot and windy outside but Lexie was a good sport and got out of the car at each overlook- and then proceeded to tell the rest of the kids about what she saw since they couldn’t be convinced to get out and brave the heat and wind over and over.

The clouds totally reminded me of the ones in Toy Story!

The layers in the Painted Desert are from a variety of sediments including siltstone, mudstone, shale, and bentonite clay from the Triassic Chinle Formation, but the beautiful colors come from the iron and manganese compounds found in the rocks.

We got out of the car for a short walk through the desert and Ellie was enthralled with all of the plants. Luckily there wasn’t any cactus right by the trail or I’m sure she would have been petting that as well.  Ouch!

Getting out and walking around a bit was the key to getting her to cooperate in the car on our 40-hour drive (over five days) across the country.  In addition to giving her something to do and new things to look at, the physical activity wore her out and she was able to nap in the car and go to bed at night.

We checked out the ruins of Puerco Pueblo, a community of nearly 200 at its peak that was built in the 1200s.  At one time, this one-story dwelling had nearly 100 rooms that surrounded a central plaza.

Plagued by droughts, the Puebloan people started building large pueblo communities and working together as a group in order to survive.  Puerco Pueblo was built near the Puerco River and was a reliable source of water for farming the slopes along the river, and they were able to successfully grow cotton, corn, squash, and beans.

However, in response to climate change in the late 1300s, those that lived in Puerco Pueblo fled the area looking for a more suitable location.

The petroglyphs left by the Puerco Puebloans mark the boulders surrounding the community.

Stretching their legs on the trail to/from Puerco Pueblo.  In hindsight, I should have had all the kids wear close-toed shoes since we were traipsing around the desert, but luckily, we didn’t run into any snakes, scorpions or cactus.

One of the most beautiful areas of the park is the “Tepees”, that got their name from the resemblance of the hills to Indian dwellings.  The hills were created from the erosional pattern of the Blue Mesa Member of the Chinle Formation.  Sediments were deposited by a tropical river system that flowed here during the Late Triassic Period (over 225 million years ago).  The brown and yellow layers are sandstone from the river channel while the blue and red mudstone layers are from the floodplain, and the white layers are ash from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

Like most kids, ours want to push the limits every chance they get, so we had to get a picture of them BEHIND the Do Not Enter sign since that means they technically entered!

Petrified Forest National Park has one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the world.  Over 200 million years ago, the logs were petrified by volcanic ash and then minerals replaced the wood over time.

Some of the logs sat high, perched on the tops of the badlands rock formations, and others had tumbled down the sides from erosion and formation shifts over time.

The grays, blues, and purples of the Blue Mesa Member Badlands are a stark contrast to the reds and browns of the Tepees and the Painted Desert, but equally beautiful.

The kids thought that the layers in the formations made them look like cakes!

Once they got tired of looking for petrified wood, Ben and Lexie pretended to be bats since they are very common in the park- though we didn’t see any.

It is so amazing that the petrified wood still looks like actual wood even though it is millions of years old and is really a fossil!

The Petrified Forest is the only National Park that contains a section of Historic Route 66.

The telephone poles mark the path of the famous road traversing the American West.  Though it was officially decommissioned over thirty years ago (1985) due to the emergence of interstates, Route 66 is still one of the most beloved historic roads in the world and people flock to the “Mother Road” every year.

The kids thought this 1932 Studebaker was pretty cool but could not imagine driving cross country in it– especially without air conditioning!!

We didn’t have as much time to time explore Petrified Forest National Park as I would have liked, and because of the July heat, we did not venture on many of the hikes that are available, but it was still a totally worthwhile stop.  Even though I grew up in Arizona and am very familiar with the typical desert landscapes, the colors and badlands of the Painted Desert are like nothing we’d ever seen before (even in other parts of AZ).  They’re so unusual and unique that the park definitely deserves a visit!

Things to Remember When Visiting the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest National Park

  • Bring (and drink!) lots of water!  Like most parts of Arizona, summers are VERY hot and PFNP gets the lowest amount of precipitation in the state, so it is also VERY dry!
  • The park is open year round (except on Christmas Day) but hours change seasonally so make sure to check ahead of time.
  • It’s $20 for a private vehicle to enter the park.  We recommend getting the $80 America the Beautiful annual pass so that you can check out all of the National Parks in the country (and there’s a free version for military, permanently disabled, and all 4th graders!)
  • The main park road is almost thirty miles long and it is not a loop so plan ahead to ensure you don’t have to backtrack to see everything.  If you’re traveling south/west, enter PFNP off of I-40 at exit 311 and exit at Highway 180. If you’re traveling north/east, follow the signs on Highway 180 (I-40 exit 285 at Holbrook) to enter the park from the south.

Have you ever been to the Painted Desert or Petrified Forest National Park??


Sharing is caring!!


  1. August 23, 2018 / 7:00 pm

    This is so neat! We are trying to plan a trip to the southwest this fall to check out these spots. Great photos!

    • Jennifer
      August 27, 2018 / 9:21 am

      How cool– fall is a great time to travel the southwest since it isn’t so hot!! Hope you have a great trip!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

34   103
53   114
46   82
26   81
39   177
36   130
44   128
50   108
44   158
38   100