Exploring the Park
Petrified Forest provides north and south entrances, with a 28-mile long road running in between. I chose to enter from the north because I was driving on I-40, which passes close by. My first two stops, less than 2 miles from the entrance, completely changed my perception of the park, where I’d expected to see only petrified wood. At the Tiponi and Tawa viewpoints, the Painted Desert stretches for 120 miles, with hills that reflect the setting sun in an undulating array of reds, oranges, pinks and even lavenders.
One layer of color seamlessly blends into another, as though an artist ran a watercolor brush over the reddish mudstone and brown sandstone. I was mesmerized.
The Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark sits perched on Kachina Point overlooking this beautiful scenery. Built over 100 years ago, the inn now functions as a museum, with no overnight accommodations. Inside, murals painted by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie depict Hopi culture — the Buffalo Dance, a trek to a sacred salt lake, planting time and images of Tawa, the tribe’s sun god.
The half-mile Painted Desert Rim Trail to Tawa Point is one of the most memorable hikes in the park. Starting at the inn, the trail passes through pinyon-juniper shrubland as it follows the edge of the canyon. If I’d had only an hour in the park for that hike, I would have left satisfied by the trail's breathtaking scenery. But the Painted Desert was only the beginning.
Traveling farther south, visitors come upon a rusted 1932 Studebaker, seemingly out of place and time. From the pullout, a line of telephone poles mark the former path of Route 66 as it passed through the park from 1926 until 1958. Petrified Forest is the only national park that included a section of the historic road, and the old car pays fitting homage.
Two sites nearby mark the existence of early residents who made their homes on the land for more than 13,000 years. Puerco Pueblo, which showcases the 600-year-old ruins of a large former Native American pueblo, and Newspaper Rock, which boasts over 650 petroglyphs, both display remnants of earlier civilizations. Researchers are still working to interpret the petroglyphs, hoping to uncover the meaning of all the symbols. No linear story is evident — just individual markings that add one more mystifying twist to the park.