Have you visited another planet before? We haven’t but these Petrified Forest National Park hikes sure made it feel like it!
The park itself is not hugely popular, which is wonderful for feeling like you have it all to yourself. The landscapes are truly otherworldly and are great for exploring. Plus, since these hikes are all relatively short, these Petrified Forest National Park activities are great even if you’re just driving through for a few hours.
There are lots more things to do in Petrified Forest National Park, but these 5 hikes are some of our favorites and will give you a great overview of the different wonders of the park!
A few notes on Petrified Forest National Park:
- DO NOT take the wood! This is very important. Many have taken it in the past and have decimated the amounts left in the park. Admire it and leave it there for others to enjoy. If you must have a piece for yourself, you can find it for sale outside the park, where people sell it legally from private land.
- The park closes! There are no overnight facilities inside the park, and it closes at night. You can check the current schedule here. Because of this, there are only a few overnight backpacking permits and others will need to stay outside the park. We stayed here in our RV just outside the south entrance.
- A 7-day vehicle pass to Petrified Forest costs $25. Alternatively, you can use an annual National Parks Pass. (Here’s how to get a free pass for your 4th grade child!)
This post on visiting Petrified Forest National Park with kids contains affiliate links, but all opinions are 100% my own. That means I earn a small commission if you purchase through my link, but doesn’t change your price.
Family Guide to Petrified Forest: Best Petrified Forest National Park Hikes and Activities
Table of Contents
What Is Petrified Wood?
Petrified wood comes from trees that were fossilized millions of years ago. The organic material in the wood was replaced with silica that hardened and crystallized. Now, the trees cannot rot, and are preserved! Different minerals make the wood different colors, and you can see it amongst the rings that are still visible in the wood.
Should I Visit Petrified Forest National Park with Kids?
In short, YES! This is, in my mind, a hidden gem of a park. It’s small and doesn’t have huge visitation, so it never feels very crowded. There are also plenty of open spaces to explore and climb for kids. Some parks can’t really allow kids to climb on trees and structures, but the petrified wood is heavy and solid and it’s fine for little ones to play on it. It’s like a giant natural playground!
Plus the badlands and mesas are beautiful and perfect for hiking and climbing. Kids love going up and down the conical hills! And everyone will love the views of the Painted Desert.
How to Get to Petrified Forest National Park & Where To Go
Petrified Forest National Park is 28 miles from one entrance to the other. There is no public transportation within the park, so it is best to have your own vehicle. Here are distances from some close by cities:
- Phoenix: 3.5 hours
- Albuquerque: 3.5 hours
- Grand Canyon: 3 hours
- Flagstaff: 2 hours
When To Visit Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest has a number of activities for any season! The winter is generally fairly mild. Winter, spring, and fall are all wonderful for Petrified Forest National Park hikes. The spring has wildflowers, as well! Occasional snow in the winter is also really beautiful. Summer tends to be busier, but since it’s a pretty quiet park overall, you can’t go wrong.
Where To Stay in Petrified Forest National Park
There are no overnight facilities inside the park, and it closes at night. You can check the current schedule here. Because of this, there are only a few overnight backpacking permits and others will need to stay outside the park. We stayed here in our RV just outside the south entrance. This KOA and OK RV Park are other great options for camping.
If you’d prefer to stay in a hotel or apartment, here are some great options!
History of Petrified Forest National Park
Tribes Native to Petrified Forest National Park
The Anasazi, Mogollan, and Hohokam all were stewards of this area and ancestors to modern tribes such as the Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo. The Ancestral Puebloans have some ruins throughout park areas. To learn more about the modern tribes and to financially support these groups that had land forcibly taken from them, you can visit them at their websites: Navajo, Hopi, Zuni.
The petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock were created between 650-2000 years ago by ancestral Puebloan people who lived, farmed, and hunted along the Puerco River. Because there are so many, this was likely a very significant place to ancient peoples. The peoples in the time periods from 650-1200 years ago were more fixed to the area and created pit houses, ceramics, basketry, and other artifacts indicative of stability. Petrified wood became a common building material, such as with the “agate houses.”
There was likely a large drought that had peoples move close by but not totally abandon the area of Petrified Forest.
Here is more information on prehistoric peoples in the area!
Petrified Forest National Park Facts
- There used to be a large river system in this area. When trees died, they floated downstream and gathered in a “log jam.” These are the forests where the petrified wood is concentrated where the logs are lying on their sides.
- According to the National Park Service, “Radioisotopic dates zircons tell us that the trees in the Black Forest were deposited about 211 million years ago and those in the Blue, Jasper, Crystal, and Rainbow Forests were deposited around 218 million years ago.”
- Some of the trees may have been up to 200 feet tall when they were alive!
- Silica from volcanic ash took the place of most of the organic wood. That means there were volcanoes nearby!
- Petrified Forest was denied National Park status in 1895, and then became a National Monument in 1906 by an order from President Theodore Roosevelt.
- The Civilian Conservation Corps used the land for projects and buildings from 1931-1942.
- It received National Park status in 1962.
- The size of the park doubled in 2004.
Petrified Forest National Park Book List for Kids
We always love learning a bit about the places we visit, as well. Here are some good books to learn about the people and landscape near Petrified Forest!
Plants & Animals in Petrified Forest National Park
- Amphibians, birds, insects, spiders, mammals, and reptiles all live in Petrified Forest.
- Crepuscular means animals are most active at the coolest times of day (dawn and dusk).
- Diurnal means animals are active during the day and nocturnal means animals are active at night.
- Some animals change their habits based on the season. Snakes and lizards, for instance, are diurnal during the spring and fall, but are crepuscular during the summer.
- Wildflowers are most common during April & May.
- The badlands are comprised of bentonite from volcanic ash. Badlands are areas that are heavily eroded and that cannot be used for growing.
What To Pack for Petrified Forest National Park: Petrified Forest National Park Packing List
Especially since it’s a very dry area, it’s important to be prepared with light layers, food, and especially water. Here are some essentials that we really love and found super useful when hiking in Petrified Forest.
- Kids hiking backpacks. Some of our very favorite hiking gear is especially important since Petrified Forest can get quite hot and dry. These backpacks are perfect so kids can sip away without needing to stop and take bottles in and out of backpacks.
- Light Layers. Definitely pack a jacket as it gets very cool at night. We love these lightweight down jackets for adults and kids because they stay warm but are packable and thin. They’re a bit water resistant, but you’ll want something sturdier for heavy rains during monsoon season.
- Sturdy shoes. Sneakers will work fine, but I recommend hiking boots if you’re doing longer treks. They’re also better for grip if you’re hiking up mesas (our favorites for men, women, boys, girls, and toddlers).
- Wool socks are an absolute must. These wool socks are my absolute FAVORITES – so soft, so durable, so warm. They come with a lifetime warranty and are a family-owned company that donates to local schools. What more could you ask for with socks? (I also like these baby wool socks that actually stay on!)
- For slightly lighter weight socks, we bought these socks recently. We all loved them so much that I bought a second pair for another kiddo.
- Wool Base Layers. If it’s cold, wool base layers are the very best. Here are our favorites for kids, women (top and bottom), and men (top and bottom).
Related: Our Favorite Kids Hiking Gear
Things to Do At Petrified Forest National Park with Kids
- Go Hiking! This is one of the best ways to explore the park and see both the Painted Desert and petrified wood.
- Become a Junior Ranger. Learn about the park and its people. You can even print out the Junior Ranger booklet at home so you can complete it even if you can’t visit in person!
- See the petroglyphs. Newspaper Rock is a great place for this!
- Drive on Route 66. This is the only National Park with a portion of it! You can even see an old Studebaker on the side of the road.
- Go geocaching. There’s an abundance of opportunities in the park!
- Watch the 18-minute orientation film at the Painted Desert Visitor Center. Or watch it at the Rainbow Forest Museum, where you can also see paleontological exhibits and gain access to the Giant Logs Trail.
Best Petrified Forest National Park Hikes and Viewpoints
Blue Forest Trail (Hiking the Blue Forest Trail with Kids)
Distance: 3 miles out and back
This is for sure the best hike in Petrified Forest National Park. I was a bit nervous since it’s technically a backcountry trail, but it was well marked and didn’t feel scary in terms of getting lost.
This trail was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and connects the main park road to the popular Blue Mesa Loop. While the Blue Mesa Loop is stunning, this has some similar scenery but was totally deserted. When we visited, the Blue Mesa Loop had 5-10 groups at each pullout, and about the same number actually walking the loop. We didn’t see a single other soul on the Blue Forest Trail, however!
The trail follows the edge of several badlands ridges. We didn’t go all the way to the Blue Mesa Loop with kids since the last 1/3 of it or so before the end gets very narrow and steep. Since had a toddler and baby with us, we didn’t feel comfortable going all the way. Still, the views from where we were looked substantially similar since we were already at the top of the ridges, so we felt like we got a great sense of the views up there (which were spectacular!).
The kids loved climbing around the Badlands areas and finding pieces of petrified wood up there, too.
There’s a pull out on the side of the main park road by the Teepees section of the park, just north of the turn to the Blue Mesa Road.
Blue Mesa Loop
Distance: 1 mile loop
This is one of the most popular Petrified Forest National Park hikes, and for good reason. It’s beautiful! The trail starts at a small parking area and goes down to the base of the big pyramids. From there, it weaves through in a loop before returning you to your starting point. You’ll get stunning badlands views and get a perfect view of the striated coloration.
The views from the Blue Mesa Loop and the Blue Forest Trail are substantially similar, though the latter will get you up higher in the pyramids themselves. I would choose one or the other, and would personally pick the Blue Forest Trail if I had to pick and had time for the 3-mile distance. It’s more varied and interesting, and far less crowded. Still, if you’re shorter on time, the Blue Mesa Loop is also gorgeous!
Crystal Forest Loop
Distance: 0.75 miles loop
If you’re interested in seeing the park’s namesake natural wonder (petrified wood), this is the place to do it. A short, paved path will take you through tons of petrified wood logs, deposits, and crystals. It’s stunning to see and fascinating to think about an ancient forest there long ago.
Giant Logs Loop
Distance: 0.4 miles
This hardly counts as a trail, but it’s fun to see the absolutely enormous logs present here by the Rainbow Forest Museum. It will likely be crowded, but it’s worth a stop!
Painted Desert Rim Trail
Distance: 1 mile
Finally, this short trail is one of the best areas to see the stunning painted desert. We love going here late in the day just before sunset as the golden sunshine lights up the reds and oranges in the rock. It goes from Tawa Point to Kachina Point and has views the entire way. If you’re short on time, you can simply drive between the two viewpoints and stop at both lookout points.
Best Viewpoints in Petrified Forest
There are a number of stunning viewpoints in Petrified Forest National Park. Here are the ones I think you shouldn’t miss!
You’ll find absolutely stunning views of the Painted Desert in the northern half of the park here.
Over 650 petroglyphs are visible from this point. They’re a bit far, though, so I recommend bringing a pair of binoculars if possible.
Blue Mesa Loop Road
Even if you don’t have time to hike the Blue Mesa Trail, the loop road is short and very worthwhile. I love the views just past the parking area for the trail and looking back at the blue & white pyramids.
Petrified Forest National Park Itinerary with Kids
I would recommend one full day at the park so you can fit in a couple of great Petrified Forest National Park hikes, but you can also get a great overview of the park in only a few hours. Here is what I recommend!
2 Hours at Petrified Forest National Park
- Watch the park film at either the visitors center or park museum (when safely open)
- Visit Tawa and Kachina Points for views of the Painted Desert
- Stop at Newspaper Rock to see the petroglyphs
- Drive the park road from North to South, as well as the Blue Mesa Loop
- Walk the Giant Logs Trail
Half a Day at Petrified Forest National Park
- All of the above plus walk the Blue Mesa Loop Trail
One Day Petrified Forest National Park Itinerary
- All of the above plus Crystal Forest Loop
- Blue Forest Trail instead of Blue Mesa Loop Trail
Petrified Forest With Kids Discussion Questions
- The ancestral Puebloans are claimed as ancestors to many modern native tribes. Do you know who your ancestors are? How can you find out more about them?
- What formation contributed silica to the petrification of lots of the wood?
- Examine the petrified wood. What does it look and feel like? What should you do with it after you observe it?
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