Roam the Petrified Forest on This Free-Form Weekend Trip

Petrified Forest National Park's trailless backcountry is the setting for a trip that will test both your navigation skills and your desert sense.

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At one point, giant reptiles roamed a towering forest of tropical conifers here. And while the dinosaurs are long gone, the trees are still here as shards of petrified wood littering the desert. Wandering through the trailless backcountry of Petrified Forest National Park, I feel like I’m the first human to ever set foot here. But I won’t be the last.

Trip stats
Distance: 11.5 miles
Time: 2 days

From the Painted Desert Inn

(1) Pick up the Wilderness Area Access Trail and follow cairns until you hit Lithodendron Wash near mile 1.
(2) Leave the trail and follow the wash (hiker’s right) to explore the Painted Desert. The writer headed northwest to the sandy mesa at roughly 35.138744, -109.833885 near mile 6. Get her exact turn-by-turn directions from the map above.
(3) Navigate back to Lithodendron Wash and retrace your steps to the trailhead.

Plateau (mile 6)

Get the full Painted Desert experience when you overnight on this mesa. There are no established backcountry campsites in this park, so find a flat spot and savor 360-degree views, which include Chinde Mesa to the north and Pilot Rock to the west. Make sure to guy out your tent.

Be sure to check out Onyx Bridge, a 30-foot-long petrified tree, around 35.108566, -109.792206. If you follow the writer’s exact route, you’ll pass it between Lithodendron Wash and the campsite (near mile 2.1).

After your overnight, tack on an easy (just .3 mile) loop on the Puerco Pueblo Trail to see the largest-known archaeological site within the park.

Visit the expansion
The National Park Service added 15,000 acres of multicolored canyonlands to Petrified Forest in 2014. See the new stuff—200-million-year-old clam beds, hoodoos, and petroglyphs—in Red Basin on a 6-mile lasso loop. Park on Blue Mesa Loop Road (just before the split) and hike east.

Trailhead 35.084023, -109.789116; 28 miles east of Holbrook off Park Rd. Season March through May and October through November Permits Obtain a free backcountry permit from the Painted Desert Visitor Center. Water Pack in all you’ll need; we recommend a gallon per person per day.

Trail Facts

  • State: AZ
  • City: Flagstaff, AZ
  • Distance: 11.5

From 2023