Best Bet for Families Traveling the American West: Petrified Forest

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Above: A boy measures the trunk of a petrified tree. Photo © Susan McElhinney. This image will appear in the permanent exhibit, “Faces of the Petrified Forest,” in the Painted Desert Inn starting in August.

Traveling with kids to the Grand Canyon and other classic stops in the American West can be an exercise in expensive hotels, bus shuttles, huge crowds, and less-than-child-friendly trails. Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona offers a surprising alternative. The trees that have turned to rainbow colors set in stone offer just one of the many amazing child-friendly storylines in the park. Indeed, it should really be called the Petrified Forest, Phytosaur, and Ancient Pueblo Settlement National Park.

Huge 18-foot crocodile-like creatures known as Phytosaurs roamed the land when it was a river-rich area in the Late Triassic period. On the south end of the park, the Rainbow Forest Museum has some terrific fossils on display, including a huge Phytosaur head as well as other two- and four-legged wonders like Placerias (which look like a mix between an elephant and a rhino) and Coelophysis (eight-foot dinosaurs that Phytosaurs ate for lunch).

Humans arrived as early as 13,000 years ago and left behind remnants of villages, tools, grinding stones, and sandstone steps leading to places where they once slept and took shelter. The park has some of these artifacts—including an array of Clovis points, a traditional weapon of the time—on display and plans to dramatically increase its overall exhibits, in part because the National Park Service just added 93,000 new acres to the park, doubling the overall acreage.

A 28-mile road splits the park and traverses a diverse landscape, from wild grasslands and the Painted Desert to colorful badlands. Simple paved walking trails, each a mile or less, spin off of this main road like side stories: Newspaper Rock, where children can clearly see 1,000-year-old art carved into stone, including human faces, pronghorn, and a famous dancing figure playing an instrument; the Agate House, made entirely of petrified wood; and Puerco Pueblo, the remains of a substantial settlement featuring yet more petroglyphs.

If your family wants to feel as though it’s left the planet, drive the three-mile side road down to Blue Mesa and walk the one-mile loop into this other-worldly blue-gray hilly desert. Standing there with no water and little life in sight, it’s easy to see why these formations are known as badlands.

While there are plenty of signs warning visitors not to steal the petrified wood, the park’s resources are otherwise free for children to explore. For example, children can climb on the logs, which are, after all, stone. And, if you want a lesson in science, take a trip to the Crystal Forest near the southern end of the park, to learn how the organic matter of huge Late Triassic trees turned to quartz and other minerals over millions of years. The array of colors in each of the logs underscores how complex the natural world is at the chemical level.

Again and again, visitors to Petrified Forest comment on how much more accessible, approachable, and engaging it is for adults and children compared to parks like the Grand Canyon. Short paved trails, remarkable stories, and plenty of wildlife—it’s the West on a family scale.

Where to Stay

Because Petrified Forest National Park remains under the radar, accommodations are limited.

The closest town of Holbrook (24 miles away) offers little, but families can stay at a world-class hotel in Winslow for $89 to $150 a night. La Posada Hotel is the premiere hotel of a series of resorts Fred Harvey built at the turn of the 20th century to accommodate travelers on the Santa Fe Railroad. Designed by famed architect Mary Colter, La Posada celebrates southwestern culture and landscapes with small gardens complete with colorful pottery, trunks of petrified wood, and even rows of corn and red-tasseled amaranth. Visitors feel as though they are living in a huge, stylish ranch house with a front row seat for watching the passing trains. Thousands of famous people have stayed and eaten at La Posada, including several presidents and movie stars—even John Wayne.

Winslow also has an affordable Best Western (1-888-945-3367), which offers rooms for under $90 a night.

Don’t be deterred by the 50-mile drive between the park and Winslow, or even by the town’s rather bedraggled look. The Posada Hotel is an internationally famous landmark and the 75 mph speed limit on Route 40 means you can make it from the park in 35 to 45 minutes. Note: The park closes at dark, so don’t get stuck at the south entrance—28 miles from Route 40—if you want to head back to Winslow at the end of the day.

Where to Eat

The Turquoise Room restaurant at La Posada serves freshly made southwestern food. The honeyed corn bread and fresh lemonade are super kid-friendly. The rest of Winslow offers little more than a Sonic—a low-cost burger joint with soft-serve ice cream, hot dogs, and milk shakes—though the kids may love that for lunch.

Petrified Forest also has a small cafeteria in the visitor center, another Fred Harvey spinoff, but the food bears no relation to what you’ll get at La Posada and is little better than fast food.

Always bring water and snacks when you head to the park. Food options in the park are limited, and the desert air and altitude can dehydrate you quickly.

Best Time to Go

Avoid late June, July, and August if you can because the heat, while dry, can soar to the high 90s or higher. March to May can be a bit cool at night but are lovely overall, and September and October are fantastic—so plan your fall getaway now!

About the Author

Mary Collins worked as a freelance writer and editor for 20 years in Washington, D.C., for a range of clients, including National Geographic and the Smithsonian. Her latest book, American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, includes a chapter on the importance of getting children outside for at least an hour a day. She is currently a tenured associate professor of narrative nonfiction at Central Connecticut State University. Mary served as an artist in residence for Petrified Forest National Park in the fall of 2013. Learn more at www.marycollinswriter.net.

Mary worked with Susan McElhinney, photo editor for the National Wildlife Federation, on an artists-in-residence project, “Faces of the Petrified Forest.” Their prose/photo portraits of people that work, visit, and volunteer in the Petrified Forest will be on permanent exhibit at the Painted Desert Inn starting in August.

  • Kevin Dahl

    Holbrook (correct spelling) actually has a lot of standard motels and decent restaurants. The Globetrotter Motel, a renovated Route 66 motel with a great breakfast included, is particularly good. La Posada in Winslow is amazing and is worth a visit even if you aren’t staying there. Near it is a great little city park dedicated the rock phrase, “Sitting on a corner in Winslow, Arizona…”

    • npca

      Thanks for the tips, Kevin! We updated the story to reflect the correct spelling of Holbrook.