US 180 takes you to the southern entrance of Petrified Forest National Park. Turn onto Petrified Forest Road, which will take you through the park, and eventually connect with Interstate 40.
The southern end of the park is where you’ll find most of the ancient petrified trees. Several trails take you past enormous petrified logs, as well as hundreds of smaller specimens, scattered about the desert floor. A short, paved, and easily accessible trail can be found right behind the Rainbow Visitor’s Center. (That trail is where I took all of the pictures on this page.)
During my visit, I didn’t know about the park’s strict “closed after dark” policy, so I found myself racing toward the exit as soon as I entered.
I had to choose my stops wisely… and the Agate Bridge sounded like an interesting, and quick, attraction to view. The bridge was formed when water slowly eroded dirt from underneath a petrified tree. The old tree trunk has been stabilized with concrete underneath.
Here’s a fun fact: it was the Agate Bridge that motivated preservationists to seek National Park status for the area.
Just a short distance up the road from the Agate Bridge, another side road takes you to Blue Mesa. Here you’ll find a trail that takes you down into some of the park’s badlands.
I hiked just a short distance along the Blue Mesa Trail to take these photos, then quickly turned back, to resume my marathon drive across the park.
Continuing north through the park, pull over to the side of the road to snap a picture of the “Teepees”. The cone shaped hills show off layers of colors that blend together.
After you cross over the Santa Fe Railroad, then Interstate 40 (there’s no exit to the freeway, just an overpass), you’re on the edge of the Painted Desert. The harsh evening sun made any photos taken here less than spectacular, but under more ideal conditions, you’ll see a wide array of colors in the desert hillsides. There are several overlooks, but all look about the same.
Note: This trip was first published in 2005.