The Petrified Forest

Exploring the area around Petrified Forest National Park, Larry Lindahl shows how this unique environment is a cornucopia for photographers
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona provides a beautiful variety of imagery, from buttes, ravines and mesas to plains, peaks and vistas. With a prehistoric past, you’ll find layers of texture from the crystal forest and juniper trees, as well as intense colors. Above: With iron, manganese and carbon embedded in quartz interiors of petrified logs, the Crystal Forest is rich in texture.

In a land of blue mesas and crystal forests, Petrified Forest National Park celebrates a colorful primordial past. Here, beneath the northern Arizona sun, rainbow-colored stone logs reveal translucent beauty below hills of multihued clay.

The patterns and shapes of Blue Mesa.

Petrified Forest features a lunar landscape of soft clay hills and multicolored canyons, 100-mile vistas and stirring evidence of a complex past. You’ll find traces of Triassic-period swamps with gigantic trees where dinosaurs and prehistoric crocodiles lived 225,000 million years ago. Fossils of carnivorous reptiles, delicate ferns and fields of fallen trees emerged from the eroded soft soil and were transformed long ago into one of the world’s largest concentrations of petrified wood.

Hiking trails inside the 135,000-acre park are easily accessible from a 28-mile road tying together the narrow north-to-south-oriented park. The trails meander from 0.5 miles to over three miles across vistas, into canyons walled in dusty zebra stripes, or through grasslands and dry washes.

Petrified Forest is best navigated from north to south to take advantage of photo opportunities among the stone logs at golden hour. The last two stops should include the impressive inner-canyon trail at Blue Mesa. And on the way to the southern gate, stop at the Crystal Forest Trail for a rewarding sunset finale.

Unlike most national parks, Petrified Forest closes at sunset, varying from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., depending on the time of year. Visitors must be in their cars heading out of the park at closing time, and federal law strictly prohibits the removal of any petrified wood.

Gates are locked until 7 a.m. from March through October, and until 8 a.m. from November through February. There are no campgrounds within the park, no motel rooms and no overnight parking. Backpacking with a free backcountry permit is the exception for overnight stays within the park. The park entrance fee is $10 per vehicle, and it’s good for seven days.

Spring weather can be temperamental. At elevations averaging 5,400 feet, snowfall is possible. Overnight temperatures drop near freezing in March and April, with highs in the 60s to 70s.

From Flagstaff, take I-40 east for 116 miles, passing the town of Holbrook to Exit 331. The Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north entrance should be your first stop. Start with the park movie, exhibits and the bookstore. Ask rangers questions as you familiarize yourself with the park layout and hours. A restaurant, open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and gas station beside the visitor center are the only ones in the park.

Nationwide motels in Holbrook are just off I-40, or Route 66-era motels—like the infamous Wigwam Motel—are downtown, about a half hour from the south entrance on Highway 180. Overnight parking is allowed at some gift shops south of the park, and campgrounds are available in the vicinity.

Painted Desert
From the north entrance, a one-mile drive to Tiponi Point quickly unveils your first view of the burnt-red and orange Painted Desert. Serrated hills of eroding clay, sometimes shimmering with gypsum, ripple away under the enormous sky. The dramatic lighting of a breaking storm will boldly charge the desert with a dark fierceness.

At Tawa Point, a dwarf forest of interspersed juniper trees gives textural contrast to the far views beneath the panoramic sky. Early-blooming wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, among saltbush, Mormon tea and brittlebush, may add a foreground accent. During midday, a polarizing filter can enrich the colors seen from this northeast-facing high point.

Try the Painted Desert Rim Trail, a half-mile hike from Tawa to Kachina Point. This easy walk features more views stretching to the horizon as you meander through wild shrubs, with shoulder-high cliffrose giving off the scent of warm honey.

At Kachina Point, the trail turns around near the historical Painted Desert Inn. This sprawling 1930s-era adobe once hosted travelers along Arizona’s Route 66. Here, you can monitor storms protected behind large windows high above the expansive desert floor and faraway Hopi Buttes.

West of the Inn, a trail begins the half-mile ascent into immense Lithodendron Wash and the park’s National Wilderness Area. Route-finding skills are vital for backpackers entering the wilderness for overnight camping or day hikers seeking solitude among the petrified wood.

Clear Desert Vistas
The northern end of the escarpment presents five scenic overlooks as the route swings due south. The provocative essence of this landscape is foretold in the successive names of Chinde Point (Navajo for “spirit”), Pintado Point (Spanish for “painted) and Nizhoni Point (Navajo for “beautiful”).

Each turnout offers slightly different angles over the broad drainage of Lithodendron Wash coursing across the badlands far below. A telephoto is ideal where the wide-open Painted Desert extends unobstructed to the sparse ridge of the Defiance Uplift, the flat top of Chinde Mesa and then Pilot Rock, rising 6,235 feet, the highest point in the park.

The naked eye can see the 12,633-foot-tall San Francisco Peaks from all five west-facing turnouts. The fourth turnout, Whipple Point, equally showcases the dormant volcano, sacred to Hopi and Navajo Indians. The Peaks break the western horizon 110 miles away and stand majestically draped in snow through late spring.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The Blue Mesa Trail provides layers of depth in the late afternoon.

Whipple Point is named for the Army expedition leader who first published photographs of Petrified Forest. Although those images couldn’t showcase the rich colors, the 1853 survey planned for the railroad that Route 66 then paralleled across Arizona.

The southernmost of these pullouts, Lacey Point, takes in the Lithodendron Wash (Greek for “stone tree”), where the barren ghost of a river continues southward. When summer storms engorge the normally dry wash, the muddy red waters flow into the Puerco River. The river bisects the park and then joins the Little Colorado River near Holbrook before spilling into the Colorado River deep in Grand Canyon.

Stories In Stone
One of the best-kept secrets in the park, a place of mystery, is hidden between the ruins and the river. To get there, start at the north end of the Puerco Pueblo parking area, cross the park road and angle to the right toward an obvious dirt road dropping down from the pavement. The service road is open to the public for foot travel only.

After a short descent the road levels, then begins ambling toward jumbled boulders and cliffs. The easy hike is well worth the time. Scanning the slopes you’ll soon discover the hidden secret: large and precisely rendered rock art. Dozens and dozens of images are carved in the massive boulders, some near the road, some behind other boulders and still others haunting the tall cliffs.

Simple backgrounds can give size context to the ancient artwork, most pecked into desert varnish, mineral stains that are especially black in places. These glyphs with their stories in stone have been tucked away beneath these cliffs for centuries. Walk in just a little ways, or go a half-mile to the turnaround point.

The Teepees
After Puerco Pueblo on your way to Blue Mesa, take a quick stop at The Teepees. These tall, conical mounds are visual curiosities and great for roadside photography. The stranded remnants of mudstone reveal a complex past.

According to geologists, this landscape alternated between being a flood plain with meandering streams, a broad lake and slowly eroding hills. Each episode created the vivid colors from silt, mud and clay. Today, these layers of time show as red, brown and white stripes. Arriving on a day when sweeping clouds fill the sky certainly complements their stark appeal.

Blue Mesa
The masterpiece of erosion in the national park is Blue Mesa. Overlooking the striped buttes and hills barely suggests the exceptional scenes you’ll find after you enter the inner world of Blue Mesa. The trail leads between variegated clay hills down to one of the most inspiring places to photograph.

The trailhead is at the end of a well-marked, one-mile-long viewpoint road about 15 miles from the park’s north entrance. On the way in, you’ll see long logs of classic petrified wood close to your vehicle. Under those logs, a geologic layer still hides fossilized vertebrates and plant life whose home territory was a tropical forest and swampy floodplain that existed 225 million years ago.

Blue Mesa Trail is only a one-mile loop, but it begins somewhat steep, so the park designates it moderate to strenuous. It’s worth every step, and soon, the trail levels and starts to amble around an enclosed bowl of some of the most engaging badlands in the park.

Follow the loop counterclockwise, and on the right, you’ll soon come to eroding ravines shedding chaotic tumbles of petrified logs. Take your time in this picturesque middle section of the canyon.

Clay hills of blue, gray and lavender layers fill the background any direction you shoot. A wide-angle lens can pull foreground elements up close and emphasize the dimensional reality of this unreal world. Late afternoon is the best time to photograph the inner canyon, just as it begins falling into shadow.

Petrified Forest National Park
Canyon de Chelly National Monument (99 miles northeast)
Walnut Canyon National Monument (110 miles west)
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (125 miles west)
Wupatki National Monument (151 miles west)
Monument Valley Tribal Park (184 miles north)

Crystal Forest
This sparsely vegetated grassland gives a sense of open space and scale to one of the most richly colored fields of petrified wood in the park. Scattered stone logs lay across a slope that gently leans west, an ideal place to finish the day.

Beginning the 0.75-mile trail, stay to the right and take the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. This way the rolling traverse promptly climbs the slope close to a picturesque array of petrified wood.

These stone trees look deceptively alive. The textured bark seems like it could easily be peeled away. But looking closer, the cracked-open logs reveal solid-quartz interiors. Embedded with colors from the effects of iron, manganese and carbon, they look like an anthology of ancient sunsets.

Clay hills in the badlands on the southeastern horizon punctuate compositions between earth and sky. The sun-drenched open plain to the west has the opposite effect, feeling like the grassland and logs continue to infinity in the last light of the day. As sunset approaches, remember you must be on your way exiting the park before dark.

See more of Larry Lindahl’s work, buy his books and sign up for his workshops at