A Family’s Guide to the Petrified Forest National Park

National Parks have been called America’s best idea for good reason. They safeguard some of the most aw-inspiring ecosystems in the United States of America. But our family outdoor adventures to these unique areas are only as good as our planning and there are a few things I wish I would have known before our visit to the Petrified Forest National Park.

I did plenty of research ahead of time on the National Park Service website about activities and the amount of time we should expect to spend at the park and planned accordingly. The Park Service has laid out several Trip Itineraries on their website and going by those I assumed we would be able to see all of the major sites and have time to hike in the time I allotted. One problem, it took us longer to visit everything than what the website predicted. I guess should have known; everything goes WAY slower when you have kids. 

Important take-a-ways!

  1. The Petrified Forest website suggested we could see most of the sites and have time to hike. Not true. We needed more time.
  2. Bring food. Some is available at the north and south entrances but it is pretty limited; especially in the winter. Closest towns are about 20 miles from the entrances.
  3. The biggest petrified logs are on the south end of the park. Leave time to visit and explore them.

Here are a few more of the specifics of our visit and recommendations for making the most of your time.

First Stop: Painted Dessert Visitor Center

We stopped here to get a paper map, purchase souvenirs and obtain junior ranger program booklets. We did ask the ranger for advise on stops to make but we didn’t take time to watch the movie. We had been in the car for a long time and it just didn’t sound fun.

Second Stop: Painted Dessert Inn National Landmark and view points

The Painted Dessert was stunning and we definitely do not regret taking time to stop at the Inn. If your time is limited don’t stop at the viewpoints along the way, just head the to Inn. There are plenty of views there.

My husband and I both love museums and wanted to spend more time at the Inn but once again it just wasn’t the place for an energetic five year old who has been cooped up in the car for over a day. Our main purpose for stopping was to fulfill a requirement for the junior ranger program.

When we first left the Painted Desert and started seeing petrified logs we were amazed. We stopped a number of times and enjoyed the views. But I highly recommend NOT stopping to view the logs at this point. The Giant Logs at the south end of the park are much more impressive. I wish we would have spent the time down there.

This trail is paved and perfect for the whole family. As I mentioned earlier, we had driven a long way and enjoyed stretching our legs. Although there were trade offs; there were other parts of the park we didn’t get to visit. Driving through the blue mesas and stopping at the view points gives you a pretty good idea of the unique scenery and hiking is just more of the same.

Forth Stop: Rainbow Forest Museum and the Giant Logs

Yep, we skipped a lot in the middle because we ran out of time :(. My #1 recommendation is to plan for more time. We stopped here so the kids could be sworn in as junior rangers and to see the Giant Logs. There is also a gift shop and small cafeteria. But I highly recommend bringing food with you. In the winter they had some packaged sandwiches and other prepackaged food, but it wasn’t much. In the summer they have a few options for hot foods.

Time of Year

We visited in the winter just before Christmas. It was chilly but nothing unbearable. We layered up and were very comfortable. The #1 benefit of visiting this time of year was that there were no crowds. Still people around but I never felt crowded; which is saying a lot for a National Park.

Obstacle to visiting.

REMOTE. This National Park does allow back country camping but doesn’t maintain any campgrounds. There are campgrounds in the area but they are anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours away. You can find a list of campgrounds on their camping page.

There are plenty of hotel options in surrounding communities. We stayed in a Hampton Inn on the west side of Gallup, NM. We found most of the surrounding communities to be tourist traps and weren’t too impressed with food options. I guess we are kind of picky.

Overall we had a wonderful time and would love to go back and see the rest someday.

Have you visited the Petrified Forest National Park? What were your favorite sites?

Here are a few posts I have written related to visiting national parks.
Keeping the Kiddos Happy – Ideas for entertaining the kids without electronics.

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