Backpacking in Petrified Forest National Park offers stunning views and a truly unique wilderness experience. Petrified Forest National Park sits atop an ancient swamp, where trees were buried by water and volcanic ash over 200 million years ago. The mineral-rich waters gradually replaced all the cells in those trees, creating the colorful petrified wood. In addition to a stunning array of petrified logs, the park also boasts thousands of archeological sites, dinosaur bones, and fossils of all kinds. Ancient dwellings, rock art, and artifacts can be found all over this place.
What is really unique about Petrified Forest is the wilderness experience offered here. There is a conspicuous lack of signs or trails of any sort, so good navigation skills are a must, as is a good map or GPS. While the lack of trails can be frustrating to some, it provides an opportunity to wander around without a particular destination in mind. You may also notice that there are no campgrounds in Petrified Forest National Park; if you would like to camp here, you have to backpack.
Backpacking in the park requires a free permit, which can be obtained at either of the visitor centers or at the Painted Desert Inn. Be sure to arrive at least one hour before the park closes (see hours listed below). With your permit in hand, park at the Painted Desert Inn to explore the north unit (Painted Desert) of the park. Be sure to take lots of water, a map, and a stove (campfires are prohibited, and petrified wood doesn’t burn anyway). Take a well-worn trail down a steep hillside next to the historic Painted Desert Inn until the trail disappears into a badland of red, orange, pink, and white clay hills.
As the trail fades away, you will generally want to hike north. Camping is allowed on any durable surface north of the Lithodendron Wash, a large and wide gravel channel about a mile north of the trailhead. This wash is generally dry and named for the petrified logs that can be found sticking out of its sand and gravel banks. Hiking up side canyons to this wash reveals hundreds of petrified logs, some as wide as 4 feet in diameter, pushing their way up and out of the eroding clay slopes. The colorful badlands offer an incredible palette of color as they are greeted by the early morning and late afternoon light. The combination of aridity, high elevation (5,400 feet), and lack of light pollution make it a great location for viewing a meteor shower. This often overlooked park is incredibly photogenic, often with dramatic clouds and inspiring sunsets.
The Painted Desert Inn is perched on a scarp to the south and offers a great landmark for navigating back to the car when your adventure is finished. Stop in there for some ice cream and admire the work of the famous southwest architect Mary Ann Coulter, who designed this beautiful structure.
Removing, disturbing, or moving petrified wood, artifacts, or fossils is strictly prohibited. Please enjoy but do not disturb the history of this place.