Trips to U.S. National Parks have never been more popular than they are now. We’re road tripping to them to immerse ourselves in the healing beauty and solitude offered by wide-open vistas and awe-inspiring natural scenery. But despite their awesomeness, some parks get far less attention from visitors than others, and some of the towns that are gateways to these parks and loaded with charm and fun things to do also don’t get their fair due. The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona and its neighboring town, Holbrook, are cases in point.
Petrified Forest is among the less-visited national parks in the nation, and yet, it makes for a truly amazing adventure. And Holbrook, founded in 1881 and built up by cowboys, cattle ranchers and railroaders, serves up a spate of old-west visitor delights ranging from the quirky to the downright fascinating. Head there to experience its rare combination of kitsch, southwest oddities, relics and natural wonders, including the enchanting geological features of Petrified Forest National Park.
Holbrook’s Incredible Location Combines Natural Majesty with Manmade Kitsch
Holbrook is located in northeast-central Arizona’s Painted Desert, which extends all the way from the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest National Park and is tantamount to a three-dimensional artwork. To quickly summon up a mental image of the terrain surrounding Holbrook, envision stacked bands of color (deposits of clay and sandstone) stretching across a rocky badlands landscape whose fiery tones morph with the angle and quality of the light striking it — think of this as a natural canvas that is literally ever changing.
Now, to get an even better sense of the out-of-this-world sights that await when you visit the Holbrook area, add to this vision of stunning striated rocks and mesas the specific qualities of the Petrified Forest, located 25 miles east of Holbrook. This national park contains the world’s largest and most colorful collection of petrified wood — whole logs and chunks of them that were preserved by having been buried in minerals for millions of years. They are the 225-million-year-old fossils of forests that once thrived in this desert.
On top of all this, Holbrook is on iconic Route 66, which means the area features some classic examples of mid-century roadside Americana.
Experience the Holbrook Area Essence
To take advantage of Holbrook’s ‘secret tourism sauce,’ you’ll want to shape a trip that taps into the surrounding retro and nature relics as well as the actual natural scenery. Below is a list of things to see and do that will steep you in all three aspects.
Wigwam Village Motel #6: A Place to See and Stay
Built in 1950, Wigwam Village on Route 66 comprises 15 concrete-and-steel teepees that evoke the area’s Native American heritage (the Southwestern Plains Indians resided in teepees), a museum and two mini-teepees that once served as restrooms for a former Texaco station on the premises. Note the vintage cars parked here, which boost the nostalgia factor. You can actually stay here and, if you do, know that it’s a motel unlike any other on Route 66 and it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Each teepee room is furnished with hickory log pole furniture and equipped with cable TV, an air conditioner and its own small bathroom. The motel also borders train tracks, so you’re likely to hear trains rumbling by during the night. Call 928-241-8413 to book a room.
Petrified Wood and Other Souvenirs at Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Co., DoBell Ranch, Geronimo’s Trading Post and Jack Rabbit Trading Post
You’ll definitely want a souvenir (or 10) that capture the beauty and memories of your journey in the area. Turn to downhome shops in the Holbrook area to browse and gather mementos that go far beyond petrified wood. These experiential gallery-like outposts immerse you in natural treasures and history as well as a rustic southwest atmosphere. (Btw, you’re not supposed to disturb or pocket any petrified wood in Petrified Forest National Park, so these businesses provide the best way to obtain pieces of the area’s ancient wood).
Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Co. showcases hundreds of special items, including fossils, rocks, polished petrified wood, sculptures, toys and dinosaurs that you can buy and either keep or gift.
Another great source for souvenirs is DoBellRanch, which brims with minerals, rocks and polished petrified wood samples that you’ll think of endless ways to put to use — décor comes to mind, but that’s just one way to go.
Geronimo’s features one of the largest petrified logs in the world and it’s worth stopping here just to see it. But there’s also many more great products on display and available to purchase — thousands of unique mementos and gifts, from rocks, polished petrified wood pieces and teepees to jewelry and clothing.
Jack Rabbit Trading Post on Route 66 in Winslow, 34 miles west of Holbrook is easy to spot thanks to the giant hand-painted ‘HERE IT IS’ sign featuring an iconic jack rabbit logo (at one point in its 72- year-history, they promoted themselves with a whole series of billboards posted along a stretch of Route 66). The 2006 Disney-Pixar movie “Cars” parodied the sign with a Ford Model T image replacing the rabbit. This fact and the trading post’s long standing reputation attract many Route 66 travelers, but the giant fiberglass jackrabbit in front of the store that visitors can climb on and ride is another big draw. Don’t miss this classic photo op — or the cool collectibles and novelties sold here, among them jack rabbit and Route 66 memorabilia!
Learn About the Area’s History at the Navajo County Historical Society Museum and Rock Art Ranch
The area is not just rich in geologic history but also Native American and other cultural history and heritage. Visit the Navajo County Historical Society’s museum in the Historic Courthouse located on the Old Route 66 to explore a large courtroom and collections that depict the early lives of community members representing various cultures (including Navajo, Apache and Hispanic) — from ranchers and homemakers to shop and other business owners.
To extend your explorations beyond the road and man-made structures, hike or picnic in Rock Art Canyon Ranch near Winslow. On this privately owned working cattle and bison ranch you can view a canyon that contains over 3,000 petroglyphs carved by early natives into the rock (most date from 5000 BC to 1400 AD), ancient excavated Anasazi dwellings, a Navajo seat lodge and hogan. The relics span 13,000 years of human activity, including hunting, gathering and farming. You can also visit a small museum featuring Natiive American artifacts from the site as well as cowboy and pioneer paraphernalia. Contact the ranch owner, Brantley Baird, who discovered many of the sites, to arrange your visit (call 928-386-5047).
Explore Petrified National Forest National Park
When you hike in this national park, located 18 miles east of Holbrook between Interstate 40 and highway 180, you’ll be treading on terrain that’s been millions of years in the making — 225-million-year-old fossils bear testimony to the park’s ancient status and you’ll be wowed by the sense of timelessness you’ll feel here along with the vivid colors of the Painted Desert badlands landscape, the petrified wood laid bare by erosion, the historic structures and the archeological sites.
The park’s trails, ranging in length from 0.3 to 2.6 miles, make it easy to explore the giant logs, badlands and structures on foot. Take the 1-mile round trip unpaved Painted Desert Rim Trail for amazing views of the Painted Desert; the 0.3-mile paved Puerco Pueblo loop trail to see the remains of a 600+-year-old pueblo; the 1-mile unpaved and paved Blue Mesa loop trail to hike through badland hills composed of blue bentonite clay and petrified wood.
A walk on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest loop trail is one of the best ways to see pieces of petrified wood in the park, but to walk among really big, wildly colorful logs take the paved 0.4-mile Giant Logs loop trail — the log at the top of the trail, called “Old Faithful” has a base that’s about 10 feet wide.
The park also offers fun and fascinating geocaching experiences and guided small-group backcountry hikes of varying degrees of difficulty that take participants through less-visited areas of the park. The backcountry treks expose hikers to spectacular panoramic views as well as riveting geological and archaeological features. Call 515-724-4493 for more information and to sign up.
If you want an atypical experience, stay away from paved trail and guided hikes and go on one of the park’s suggested ‘off-the-beaten-path’ adventures. The 3-mile round trip Blue Forest Trail through vibrant blue-and-white badland hills encapsulates the essence of all that is special about the park — you’ll get doses of history, beautiful scenery, petrified wood and geological info.
Top Off Your Adventures at the Empty Pockets Saloon
Celebrate the end of your trip to Holbrook and Petrified Forest National Park (or the beginning or the middle) with a cold glass of beer at the old west-style Empty Pockets Saloon on Route 66 in Holbrook. Take note of its antique bar and old-west relics on the walls as you sip, play some pool and take some pics. A drink at a wild west saloon is the perfect chaser to an eastern Arizona vacation focused on a town where tumbleweed still blows in from the badlands and rolls down the streets.