A forest in the middle of the Arizona desert? Unheard of-- unless it's one of the sparkly gemstone woodlands of Petrified Forest National Park! It's definitely nothing like any other forest in the country, since all the wood has pretty much been turned into stone, Medusa-style. The park is packed with hidden gems (quite literally, since the wood in the trees has been turned into various sparkly minerals) that anyone, from the outdoor enthusiast to the science geek, can enjoy. Here are some of the park's best-kept secrets!
Petrified Forest is one of the few National Parks in the country where you can get just as much out of a visit by staying inside instead of heading out into nature.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center has an educational film, a gift shop, some bits on the park's history, and plenty of petrified wood around, perfect for people who are just stopping by, maybe while traveling along Route 66.
There's also the Rainbow Forest Museum, with hands on exhibits and tons on display-- plus right behind the museum is one of the park's best hikes, along the Giant Logs Trail.
Then there's the famous Painted Desert Inn-- you can't stay the night here anymore, but you should definitely stop in to check out the exhibits on the building (which was originally built of petrified wood, but was given an awesome makeover in the 1930's), the CCC and the park's Route 66 history. It's easily one of the park's most photographable features-- just look at that quaint adobe exterior!
For a park that's less than 150 miles square, it's pretty impressive to think that over 600 archaeological sites have been found within Petrified Forest's boundaries. There are literally hidden gems on top of hidden gems crammed inside the park! They range from cryptic petroglyphs (Newspaper Rock) and Pueblo ruins (like Puerco Pueblo) to dinosaur bones and 8,000-year-old spearheads... and none of this includes the fact that all of the petrified wood is technically fossils.
In the more modern era, there's a ghost town called Adamana that's about a mile away from the park. People lived there from about 1896 all the way until 1969-- there was even a post office until then. Looking at the scant remains, it's hard to believe that the town once had a hotel that was visited by Theodore Roosevelt and the King of Spain!
Ok, so what exactly is petrified wood, and why is there so much of it in the middle of the desert? Way back in history, this part of Arizona was covered by tree-lined rivers. As the trees died, they fell into the rivers and floated downstream, occasionally forming log jams. These log jams are the "forests" of petrified wood that we see today. Over time, the conditions of the trees and river allowed the organic material in the trees to be replaced with different minerals (which accounts for the different colors in the petrified wood) thus preserving the logs. Want some wood for yourself? You can buy samples of it in some of the park's gift shops, but it is super duper illegal to help yourself to any from the park. The stuff they sell was found on private land and is thus legal to buy and sell-- but if you do purchase any, definitely don't open it until you've left the premises! Don't want them thinking you're stealing something you shouldn't be.
I wouldn't suggest heading out into the park's miles of desert without a plan-- otherwise you'll be wandering around aimlessly in the brutal heat, and that's no fun. Whether you're hiking the Blue Mesa Trail or out to the Agate House, or you simply want to check out one of the Painted Desert overlooks (sunrise and sunset are especially breathtaking), having a plan of what you want to see makes things a lot more enjoyable!
There's no camping in the park (although backpacking is allowed with a permit) but there are still tons of great accommodation options. For an authentic Route 66 experience, stay at the Wigwam Village Motel No. 6, for a Western vibe.
Book a room at La Posada Hotel (it's maybe the area's best hidden gem, since it's a working train station/museum/boutique hotel).
If you want to set up camp (or an RV) you can do so at Homolovi Ruins State Park Campground-- it gives you all the desert scenery and ancient history of Petrified Forest.