A Return to Petrified Forest National Park

In the computer gaming world, particularly in role playing games, there are goals that players must do to advance. In addition to these plot-advancing requirements there are extra, optional missions, popularly referred to as “side quests,” that players may do, and while they are not necessary to complete the game, they often add richness, complexity, and challenge. In the game of full time RVing, level 2021, our latest mission was “Go West” and the next necessary milestone was “Visit Dolores in Concord, CA.”

Accordingly, we developed a plan to get there, along with a list of possible “side quests” we might undertake along the way. We would not have time for all of them; distance off the route would be a major factor in deciding which to do, but Petrified Forest National Park involved practically no deviation from our current path since I-40 passes directly through it. Even if it had been a couple of hours off the route we likely would have done it anyway since we really enjoy The Painted Desert region, but being right along the way made it a no brainer.

We left our last stop, Red Rock Park in New Mexico, and made the short drive to the Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north end of the park, immediately off I-40. After getting our bearings, we headed for the park entrance, prepared to purchase an $80 annual pass for all national parks (we have tentative plans to see up to a dozen during the coming year) and were quite pleasantly surprised to learn that, as of Veterans Day 2020, all national parks are free to all veterans. Yay us! That almost makes up for having to pay a Tricare health insurance monthly fee starting this year.

Petrified Forest has a 28 mile road running north-south through it that allows visitors to see and experience a lot of the fascinating geology and beautiful scenery from easy pull outs, parking areas, and trail heads. In fact, during our 2015 visit, short on time and lacking a tow vehicle, that is pretty much all we did; driving from the I-40 exit through the park, stopping at various spots along the way, and then turning right around at the southern end and doing it again.

This year we allotted two days for the park, and since we had prepositioned fairly close we arrived in time to really enjoy day one. But first: accommodations. In 2015 we finished our “down and back” tour of the park around sunset, and lacking reservations anywhere we picked the first RV park on the interstate. It was cheap and perfectly serviceable, but current reviews suggested it had gone down hill since then while the price had doubled.

Instead, we chose to stay at the Petrified Forest Gift Shop, a privately owned place just beyond the park’s southern entrance gate, which was perfect. It does not look like much when you pull up, but for $15 a day we got 30 amp power, plenty of space, some nice views, and extraordinary convenience. The gift shop proprietors were very flexible about site selection and how we set ourselves up, which made a difference in our shade and privacy. The gift shop on the other side of the road, Crystal Forest, has pretty much the same RV parking deal, and some of their sites even have a little covered area and picnic tables, and it would have been quite acceptable as well, but we stuck with our first option since the sites looked just a touch more spaced out.

You would never know this is the gift shop parking lot rather than a beautiful desert RV resort, right?

Frequently the first day of an RV destination is a bit of a loss: we don’t start our travel days early unless forced, and after a four hour drive and campsite set up time, well, it’s cocktail hour. Though we had just driven through the park in the big rig, thanks to having prepositioned relatively close at our last New Mexico stop, we were early enough to really enjoy that first day. We took Loki back into the park, and made multiple stops along the park road, staying late enough to really enjoy the views as we neared the golden hour.

A wider view, showing how much space we enjoyed.

Day two we explored the nearby town of Holbrook where we particularly enjoyed the very large Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood store. They have an an astounding amount of petrified wood, a wide assortment of other rocks and minerals, and a very nice sort of museum/art gallery as well. If you visit the Petrified Forest National Park, you will find plenty of souvenirs and interesting things at the official gift shops and the two privately owned ones immediately just outside the parks southern gate, but for the best possible selection and prices we recommend heading into Holbrook and seeking out places like Jim Gray’s.

We also geocached the area for an hour or two, finding ten or so caches in addition to the National Park Service approved caches within the park proper. Geocaching is an ideal hobby for those of us who don’t enjoy shopping as much as our spouses; I can drop Rosemarie off at Michael’s or Ross and find a few local caches until she is ready for pick up. In this case, however, we both went a-huntin’, which is helpful since Rosemarie’s eye is a lot better than mine when searching for camouflaged containers in heavy foliage.

Holbrook and the two entrances to the Petrified Forest form a triangle. We had taken the southern leg of it to town, but for our return we took the northern leg back to the top of the park, allowing us to make one more exploration of the place before the early evening gate closures. We focused on a few of places in the north we had not visited on day one, but revisited some of our favorites. The Blue Mesa loop is not to be missed.

There are national parks where a short visit can’t conceivably allow visitors to see even a fraction of the wonders available. Then there are places where a couple of days is sufficient to take it in, or at least the highlights. We consider The Petrified Forest in the latter category: clearly worth your time, but you don’t need to plan for a week here. If you are passing through Arizona on I-40, it is well worth a stop, even if you only have a couple of hours to drive through it.

Next up: Sedona and our first true boondocking since leaving Florida.

We have been fortunate enough to spot a pronghorn during both of our Petrified Forest visits.