A relaxing drive through Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park
Smell that? That’s fresh air and wide-open spaces, baby. And a whole bunch of fossils. Rife with history and spectacular views of never-ending Painted Desert and petrified wood, this stop was one of the most enjoyable and relaxing highlights of our road trip, from Illinois to California. There are many ways to experience Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, but taking a peaceful, easy drive through this beautiful Triassic graveyard is a time sensitive option that gives a great overview of the park, and you don’t even have to leave your car. Although, I highly recommend it.
With built-in view points, optional short walks at designated areas, and a self-guided tour with great free brochures and other informational literature all from the comfort of your own moving vehicle, this option makes for a relaxing way to roam where the dinosaurs did 225 million years ago.
This is a leisurely ride. Think, It’s a Small World, only you’re in control of the pace and there’s no song playing on repeat. Pick this self-guided tour if you’re not in the mood to hike, but still want to take in the views. Or maybe wide-open spaces freak you out. Or maybe you don’t have much time. If you’re not a crowds kind of person, this is also a good option. There were many travelers along the way, traveling at their own pace and stopping when they liked.
Seven-day passes are $20 per car, and decrease with price for bikes, motorcycles; etc. Only $30 for an annual pass. [Insert shocked face here.] Like seriously, National Parks treat us so well. We need to return the favor by visiting them as often as possible. They offer an escape. Peaceful rejuvenation. A reminder of the power Mother Nature beholds. And sometimes a pretty cheap way to time travel… in this case to the Triassic Period.
Along the road, which stretches 26 miles from end to end, you’ll hit several highlights, including Newspaper Rock, Blue Forest, Agate Bridge, Jasper Forest and Crystal Forest. There are guided tours available on certain dates.
Depending which direction you’re coming from, your journey will either begin at the North entrance at the Painted Desert Visitor Center off Interstate 40 or from the South entrance at Rainbow Forest Museum off Highway 180. Neither starting point is better than the other, just a different perspective from either direction.
You’ll end up at either end in the end anyway (funny how that happens), unless of course you’re like me, who decides at the end that I really did want the locally made petrified rock ring I saw at the visitor’s center at the other end. Thankfully I was born to parents who are just as flexible as our self-guided tour. I’m bad at making decisions under time constraints. Particularly decisions having to do with jewelry. And dinosaurs.
While I do love nature and the magic that is petrified trillion-year-old trees, my attention peaked when I learned we were standing among fossils from the Triassic Period. As we stood in awe at the swirling colorful landscape, spanning further than I could ever hope to squint, I imagined Postosuchus kirkpatricki (I call him Kirk for short) roaming through what once was a tropical rainforest in Arizona. [Insert second shocked face here.]
This crow or raven…. err species of bird was pleased as punch to pose for me. He really did pose. The second he saw my camera, he dropped his strawberry, looked at me so I could get a few face shots, and then turned to show me his profile. It was hilarious and he was loving every minute of it. A striking moment, him/her scavenging for food in modern day in the same place — most likely — its ancestors walked just trillions of years before. What a wild parallel.
Meandering at a fairly slow pace, the drive from one end to another took us about 45 minutes. Maybe less. Maybe more. I’m not really sure. If time weren’t of the essence, I would have loved to go on one of the hikes and can definitely see this as a future camping destination.
We enjoyed both the Painted Desert Visitor Center and Rainbow Forest Museum. The museum is small and packed full of neat exhibits, offering more information about the plant and animal life that once resided and currently resides here, including fossils and realistic models.
The visitor center is chalk-full of knowledge, history, and awesome souvenirs. I never understand why people pass up the visitor centers — they’re practical and inviting. Park experts are more than happy to share their expertise. In fact, it was from talking to a ranger that we found out about this drive.
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