The barren desert landscape in the sun-baked corner of southern Arizona defies the typical view of a forest, but there are certainly trees. They just happen to be 200 million year old conifers that were swept away by ancient flooding and have since fossilized into brilliant displays of rock and minerals. The Painted Desert offers a backdrop to these pre-historic giants, making the Petrified Forest National Park a beautiful place for visitors to enjoy distinctive natural wonders.
Petrified Forest National Park is easily planned as a day trip, making it an ideal trip for preschoolers and young kids. Not only is it a beautiful and unique landscape, it is also a prime stop if you are heading west towards the Grand Canyon. This is definitely not an overwhelming park, and can be perfect for letting kids stretch their legs, or can even be a great stop for parents while babies and toddlers nap. I like to think of this park as “National Parks-Lite” as it is easily traversable by car, and it is not necessary to hike, camp, or stay too long to see the best. Hiking and longer visits are certainly available at the park, but parents of young kids will be thrilled with the accessibility of this park.
Tips for Visiting Petrified Forest National Park
Because of the relatively small size, there are no camping or lodging options inside the park. The nearest lodging is 20 miles to the southwest in Holbrook, AZ. Other lodging choices are available 70 miles to the south in Gallup, NM.
Dining is limited within the park to a cafeteria in the Painted Desert Visitors Center and a snack bar in the Rainbow Forest Museum. Outside the park, visitors can find tacos at the nearby Hopi and Navajo reservations, but any standard restaurants will be located in Holbrook, AZ.
~A rock formation known as the Tepees at the center of the park.~
The park has a southern and a northern entrance. There is no difference between the two entrances, and each traverses the same road that leads through the park. Choosing the entrance that is closest to your current location is probably best, although you may need to backtrack when you reach the end of the park depending on your next destination.
The park trail can be easily driven in 45 minutes to one hour if there are no stops along the way. Accounting for stops will add 2-4 hours to your total time in the park, depending on the length of the stop and if you choose to do any hiking.
Water is extremely limited in the park, and because the park is in the desert, it is necessary to bring a supply along for each person.
Restrooms are also limited throughout the park, so take advantage before it becomes an emergency. Marked restrooms will include the distance to the next restroom, so you can plan your needs accordingly.
Petrified Forest has several very short and easy hikes that are perfect for little ones or for those with a limited amount of time. Many of the trails are a ½ mile or less and traverse an easy terrain that encompasses some of the best specimens of petrified wood in the park.
The Rainbow Forest Museum on the southern end of the park offers some hands-on exhibits for kids, as well as a 20 minute film that explains the origins of the Petrified Forest. This is an ideal place to cool off after a hike or get a cold drink before you head out into the park.
~Playing in the Dino Dig pit at the Rainbow Forest Museum~