While the park has the largest collection of petrified wood in North America, it also is known for its geography. Its petrified wood collection along with a scenic badlands type look gives it a unique place in the National Park system. It is difficult to imagine today given the desert landscape, but the petrified wood is the remnants of an ancient forest. First before I got to the park, about 45 miles west of the park is Winslow, AZ and its Route 66 Standin’ on the Corner exhibit to the Eagles song Take it Easy. Definitely worth a stop, although it need not be a particularly long stop.
I entered the park from the south and started with the Rainbow Forest Museum and the Giant Logs trail. Most visitors come into the north entrance off I40, if you are planning to do so just take note that things will be reversed from the order I list them.
In back of the museum I encountered a park ranger on horse back and asked her if I could take their picture. The horse seemed quite used to being photographed. There are two large groupings of logs down here and both are really amazing. The paved trail behind the museum goes to the Giant Logs collection. It winds through them can make it difficult to get natural looking pictures of them, but it is ideal to get close ups of them. Just a bit further north is an unpaved trail to Long Logs and Agate House, a partially reconstructed ruin. The trail out to Agate house is just under a mile one way.
The next stop going north is Crystal Forest, so named for some crystals embedded in a few of the petrified logs. It is an easy 3/4 mile loop trail. Jasper Forest and Agate Bridge are the next two stops and also very worthwhile. Then comes what I think is the most scenic area of the park, the Blue Mesa and Blue Mesa Trail. The trail is a loop about one mile long and goes down to some more petrified logs and also offers some spectacular views of the badlands. The light is probably best in the afternoon, although the summer months can get very warm.
Continuing north brings you to the turn off for Newspaper Rock. A set of more than 600 petroglyphs, they can only be viewed from a platform and would require a fairly long telephoto to do them any justice. As you continue to head north, just after you cross I40 is a Route 66 exhibit. The exhibit has little to do with the park, but nonetheless is very photographic if there isn’t too big a crowd mulling about. From there you’ll pass a few pull offs, Chinde Point and Kachina Point are the two most worthy of a stop before you get to the Painted Desert Inn. It is a nearly 100 year old adobe structure the used to serve as an inn and restaurant, but now is only a museum. The last stop before the exit to I40 is the Painted Desert Visitor Center, the main visitor center in park. If you are entering off I40 this would be your first stop.