Road Trip: Petrified Forest National Park

Welcome to a place where the only trees in sight are petrified! We first visited Petrified Forest National Park in 2008. At the time we were in a hurry to reach another destination and unfortunately did not make the most of our visit. This time we made the most of our visit by walking most of the trails, learning more, and hopefully making better photographs. We hope you enjoy touring the park with us.

Where is it?

Petrified Forest National Park is located between I-40 and Highway 180, near Holbrook, Arizona. Access the park’s website here.

The Painted Desert Inn, which is a National Historic Landmark, can be found on the portion of Historic Route 66 that traverses the park. The former inn now serves as a museum.

What you should know before you go:

  • Admission fees apply.
  • The 28-mile-long park road is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, as are the Rainbow Forest and Painted Desert Visitor Centers.
  • The Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark is open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
  • A park film can be viewed in either of the two visitor centers.

  • There are parking areas, trails, and/or overlooks at all the main attractions in the park.
  • Pets are allowed in the park as long as they are leashed. Horses are allowed in designated wilderness areas.
  • A diner and convenience store with gasoline are located next to the Painted Desert Visitor Center. There are also several picnic areas with restrooms throughout the park.

  • There are no campgrounds in the park. However, backcountry camping is allowed in designated wilderness areas of park, and a permit is required.
  • Park sponsored demonstrations, guided activities, and workshops take place throughout the year.
It’s hard to believe this was once a rainforest and riparian ecosystem.

Rainbow Forest Museum

Our first stop was at the Rainbow Forest Museum and visitor center where we learned about the prehistoric history of the park. Once part of the super continent called Pangea about 220 million years ago, what is now Petrified Forest National Park was about 10 degrees north of the equator. As a rainforest surrounded by rivers and swamplands, its inhabitants included intriguing pre-dinosaur age animals that roamed or swam in the area.

Placerias hesternus lived before and then with the dinosaurs.

Displays in the museum featured several interesting animals including the placerias hesternus. According to museum information: Placerias hesternus (plu-SAYR-ee-us hess- TERN-us) was a dicynodont therapsid. Therapsids were large “reptiles” that possessed many mammalian characteristics including a “cheek” bone, enlarged canine teeth, and a specialized attachment of the skull to the spine. This massive plant-eater was up to 9 feet (2.7 m) long and might have weighed as much as two tons. 

Artist’s rendition of what the animal might have looked like.

Interestingly, a large number of placerias hesternus fossils were found in a quarry in St. Johns, Arizona, a town southeast of the park.

Giant Logs Trail

Giant Logs Trail located behind the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center lives up to its name. Below are a few photos of the colorful petrified tree trunks along the trail.

Crystal Forest

Believe it or not, the logs in Crystal Forest had become crystalline quartz before T. rex arrived 135 million years later!

Crystal Forest

According to the park, this area was once on the edge of a river channel. Flooding over time caused the trees to become buried under silt which preserved them. Gradually the volcanic silica in the groundwater replaced the molecules in the wood and created a replica of the tree or log in quartz.

Littered with logs.
Spectacular colors.

Blue Mesa

The Blue Mesa area of the park was probably the most intriguing to us because of the incredible geology. We didn’t caption the photos below because words really can’t describe the beauty of the place. According to the park: The colorful bands of the Chinle Formation represent ancient soil horizons. While the red, blue, and green layers generally contain the same amount of iron and manganese, differences in color depend on the position of the groundwater table when the ancient soils were formed. In soils where the water table was high, a reducing environment existed due to a lack of oxygen in the sediments, giving the iron minerals in the soil a greenish or bluish hue, such as at Blue Mesa. The pink and reddish layers were formed where the water table fluctuated, allowing the iron mineral to oxidize (rust).

That’s a little bit of snow in the left foreground.

The Tepees

Blue Mesa isn’t the only area of the park with breathtaking terrain. Introducing the Tepees.

The Tepees

According to the park: The Tepees are located in the middle of the park, but expose one of the lowest, thus oldest, rock members within the park and the Painted Desert. 

View across the road from The Tepees. Oh, those colors, and we accidentally captured the moon!

Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock is not just one rock. Throughout the area are many rocks with petroglyphs and other writings. Visitors view the rocks through telescopes/binoculars at the viewpoint – or in our case by zooming in with the camera. Most of the rock below is covered with petroglyphs that are thought to date back 600 – 2,000 years.


Puerco Pueblo

Petrified Forest National Park protects the ruins of a village that was once a 100-room pueblo and home to about 200 people. Puerco Pueblo’s residents were farmers who grew beans, corn, and squash while utilizing the nearby Puerco River for irrigation. Scientists believe the site was abandoned by 1380 due to climate change and severe drought conditions.

Some of the pueblo ruins.
One of several kivas (underground ceremonial rooms) located on the site.

Painted Desert

Named by Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, the Painted Desert actually stretches about 150 miles from the eastern side of the Grand Canyon southeast to Petrified Forest National Park. Visitors traveling the portion of Historic Route 66 through Petrified Forest can see even more of the park’s breathtaking landscapes from several viewpoints along the way. Gorgeous desert vistas can also be seen from the Painted Desert Visitor Center.

Stunning vista.
Pretty in pink.

While we have barely scratched the surface of Petrified Forest National Park, we hope we have inspired some wanderlust. This is one of those parks that cannot be justified by photographs and words; it needs to be seen in person to be appreciated for its beauty and historic importance. We thank you so much for joining us on our road trip! Need more national park inspiration? Try these other great parks:

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.



Saguaro National Park

Saguaro (pronounced suh-war-o) National Park is a landscape unlike any other we’ve seen. A literal cactus forest divided into two units – the Rincon Mountain District (east) and the Tucson Mountain District (west) – and it is approximately 30 miles between the two. We visited the east unit on a day when a cold front was blowing in and it was very windy. On the next day when we visited the west unit, we woke up to snow which thankfully disappeared quickly as the day warmed up. Both units were great, but if we had to choose only one, we would probably choose the west unit.

View of the Rincon Mountains from the east unit.

We are excited to share this park with you and hope you enjoy learning about it through our words and lenses.

Where is it?

Saguaro National Park is located in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona. The east unit is located at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, Arizona. The west unit is located at 2700 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona.

Along Cactus Forest Drive (scenic drive) at the east unit.

The park features:

  • Visitor centers at each unit with exhibits, park films, and cactus gardens
  • Bookstores at each unit’s visitor center
  • Hiking trails at each unit
  • Bicycling trails at each unit
  • Horseback riding allowed on trails at the east unit
  • Backcountry camping with permit
  • Picnic areas at each unit
  • Scenic drives at each unit
  • Ranger-led programs
  • Entry fee covers both units

Access the park’s website here.

The two saguaros in the center look like they’re high fiving each other. This view is from the Bajada Loop Drive (scenic drive) at the west unit.

The Sonoran Desert

File:Sonoran Desert map.svg - Wikimedia Commons
Map credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons.

Spanning 120,000 square miles, the Sonoran Desert covers parts of Arizona and California as well as parts of Mexico. Neighbors include the Chihuahuan Desert to the East, the Mojave Desert to the north, and the Great Basin Desert to the northwest, with each desert possessing different distinguishing factors and its own diverse ecosystems.  

The Sonoran Desert’s subtropical climate is characterized by its mild winters and hot summers. It is the hottest desert in North America. Rainfall varies from 3-16 inches per year, though some higher elevation areas receive more rain along with snow in the winter. The desert’s monsoon season usually runs from July through September.

Saguaros only grow in the Sonoran Desert.

This desert is home to over 2,000 species of plants. Organ pipe cactus is another species that only grows in the Sonoran Desert and can be found at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the southwest corner of Arizona.

Desert Cacti

While the saguaros are the stars of the show at Saguaro National Park, we enjoyed learning about some of the other cactus varieties that make their home in the Sonoran Desert.

Teddy bear cholla

Our newest cactus discovery was the teddy bear cholla (pronounced choy-uh). We have a lot a cholla around where we live, but not this species. Even though the teddy bear cholla looks soft and cuddly, it is not!

Fishhook barrel cactus

If we had visited the park in September rather than in March, we probably would have seen the fishhook barrel cactus in bloom. The interesting thing about this cactus is that it leans toward its greatest source of light. By doing this, the larger plants can topple over and uproot themselves.

Chain fruit cholla

We never knew that there were so many species of cholla. We also saw staghorn cholla and pencil cholla. The one above is called a chain fruit cholla because it produces grapelike clusters of edible fruit. It is sometimes known as the jumping cholla due to its short, jointed stems that can easily drop from the plant and attach to people or animals that may be passing by.

Desert Trees

Palo verde tree

Palo Verde means green stick in Spanish. Identifiable by their green bark, these interesting trees are found throughout the Sonoran Desert. Three things that make this tree so unique:

  • It only has leaves/blooms during the spring, dropping them as temperatures climb in order to prevent water loss.
  • It lives on virtually no water for prolonged periods of time.
  • It survives by photosynthesis through its bark.
Creosote bush

We were first introduced to creosote bushes at Big Bend National Park, and it’s likely that we only paid attention to them then because they smell so good – especially after a rain. Nevertheless, the unique thing about creosote bushes in the Sonoran Desert is that they, along with palo verde trees, mesquite trees, and other cacti species, are nurse plants for the saguaro. That means that baby saguaros grow underneath these nurse plants using their shade and nutrients to help the saguaro mature. As the saguaro grows, it takes all of the nurse plant’s nutrients and water which eventually kills the nurse.

The Saguaro

Perfect saguaro?

While we walked trails and drove through Saguaro National Park, we spent a lot of time looking for a perfect saguaro. The fact is, there are few that epitomize what we thought a saguaro should look like. First of all, many of them have holes where desert dwelling birds have built homes. (But with no trees, what’s a bird to do?) Secondly, some saguaros have been affected by cold weather or old age, and they’re just not pretty anymore – at least they didn’t look pretty to us. Fortunately, we found a few perfect ones to share. Here are some interesting facts about saguaros:

  • Without knowing when it was planted there is no way to tell the age of a saguaro.
  • Saguaros grow about one inch in its first 5 – 10 years.
  • A saguaro may reach 6 feet tall by the time it is 35 – 60 years old and will flower for the first time around 55 years old.
  • At 50 – 75 years old the saguaro will start to grow arms and may reach a height of 8 – 20 feet tall.
  • While they are considered mature at 125 years old, saguaros can live between 150 – 200 years, and some may live up to 250 years.
  • Pleats on the body of the saguaro allow them to expand to retain water, and the number of pleats matches number of wooden ribs on the inside of the plant.
  • A fully grown saguaro can weigh up to 4 tons.
  • Saguaros bloom for only 24 hours then the blossoms grow into fruit which is edible.
  • Saguaro blossoms are the state flower of Arizona.
Snow tipped saguaros – west unit.

Crested Saguaros

Rare crested saguaro

Crested, or cristate, saguaros are rare, and while some biologists believe that the crests are caused by genetic or hormonal reasons, others think there is a physical cause, such as a lightning strike or cold snap, for the fan-like formations. The fact is that nobody really knows for sure what causes the mutations. When we found out about them, we added them to our mission to find a perfect one, but the one pictured was the only one we found in either unit. According to a ranger, only 25 crested saguaros have been found among the 2 million saguaros living in the park. The Crested Saguaro Society has catalogued about 3,300 of these unusual cacti throughout the Sonoran Desert region. Information about their finds is kept in a secret database so that vandals and poachers cannot locate the unique specimens.

It’s Not All About Cactus

Arizona and its surrounding states have been home to indigenous people for thousands of years. Clues to their existence have been left behind in cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites, implements, pottery, and rock art. Rock art can be painted (pictographs) or carved into the rock (petroglyphs). Saguaro National Park has a fine collection of about 200 petroglyphs at a site called Signal Hill.

Some of Signal Hill’s petroglyphs

Hohokam (pronounced hoho-kahm) people, who lived in the area between 450 AD and 1450 AD created Saguaro National Park’s petroglyphs. How do we know this? Some of the same designs are seen in their pottery. Nobody really knows what the symbols mean, though there are speculations.

According to park information, some researchers believe that the petroglyphs are religious symbols. Others believe they may commemorate an event, mark a solstice, or even tell a story. We like to think that the ancient people were recording what they saw – similar to today’s photographs. Regardless of what they mean, it is fun to view them and try to make our own interpretations.

We are going to close the post with a few more shots from around the park.

East unit trail view of pretty saguaros and other plants.
West unit view from Signal Hill.
Even though it was technically still winter, we saw wildflowers. Desert marigold, perhaps? Unfortunately, we missed a desert super bloom by about two weeks.

Thank you so much for exploring Saguaro National Park with us! If you love national parks or need more road trip ideas, check out these other great parks:

Grand Canyon National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park


Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.