Back in 1872, America set a precedent by establishing Yellowstone National Park. It was the second of its kind in the world—Mongolia beat us to it—helping kickstart a trend in federal land conservation that now spans more than 30 states in the US and over 100 countries worldwide.
If you are a seasoned American roadtripper, you likely already have your National Parks Pass, which boasts unlimited yearly admission to any and all of the 63 national parks countrywide. If you’re new to the national park scene, you can always visit a few national parks a la carte until you get the craving to see them all.
Arizona is home to national monuments, forests, and three national parks. All are worth seeing, but if you’re local to central or southern Arizona, there are two that you need to check out first: the Petrified Forest and Saguaro National Park. So grab your pass and camera, gather your friends and family, load your car with music and snacks, and hit the road.
Here are some pointers on how to visit these two national parks like a pro—or at least like an enthusiastic Arizonan who supports the local economy.
“There is no Arizona, no painted desert, no Sedona.” Jamie O’Neal typically graces my playlist when traveling to see more of the gems of Arizona. Lucky for us, this song is only a metaphor and there is, indeed, an Arizona, Sedona, and Painted Desert. These places have served as inspiration to many creatives throughout the decades.
Located along Highway 40, the Petrified Forest National Park sits in the heart of the painted desert. Twenty-eight miles long, it offers views and beauty for miles, with shops, historical locations, and plenty of food and rest spots interspersed along the way to help you make a weekend of it.
So…what exactly is it? Dads may tell you it’s a scared forest (hardy har har) but its formation is far more fascinating than any dad joke. A brief 225 million years ago, this was just your run of the mill forest, home to trees and animals. Two-and-a-quarter millenia later, what we’ve got is mountainous petrified wood that looks akin to smooth agate with rainbow-color crystallization. There are also fossils of Phytosaurs and relics of early human housing. So the Petrified Forest, in its essence, is a fossil forest rich in flora, fauna, and human history.
Located alongside several hiking trails, Puerco Pueblo is a must-see when visiting this park. The 100-room compound was occupied by the ancestral Pueblo people for more than 600 years. Nearby is another eight-room house, The Agate House, which was occupied for about 250 years. If you feel like stretching your legs, there is a short trail between the two sites that includes petroglyphs, or rock carvings. The nearby guide house has kind people who are happy to share stories and give information. While the majority of trails are pet-friendly, the buildings request that your furry friends stay outside and on a leash.
If that hike sparked a desire to explore more paved trails, be sure to check out Giant Logs, a trail that begins behind the Rainbow Forest Museum. Less than a half-mile long in its entire loop, the peak of this trail offers views of Old Faithful, a petrified log that is 10 feet wide at its base…which makes it both the largest (and oldest) log in the Petrified Forest. Along the drive through the park, you will encounter pullouts and more trails. While those are the two stops that are without a doubt worthy of your to-do list, be sure to leave time for spontaneity and visit wherever the wind points you to—there is nary a bad stop in the park.
There are gift shops to stop at along the way that sell petrified wood, candy, and other cute things to help you commemorate your day at the Petrified Forest. Along the drive, you will also see the Painted Desert Inn, a 1920s hotel located within the national park. This is a beautiful historical stay and the only one within the park’s perimeter. If you’re on a tight budget, continue on into Holbrook, the nearby town that has eats, stays, and other shopping experiences (yes, they also sell petrified wood).
Unless you plan to book a night at the Painted Desert Inn, Holbrook is the town to stay in to make a weekend out of this trip. Located nearby the park, Holbrook has hotel options, classic dining, and one of my favorite places to stay in the country: Kampgrounds of America (KOA). KOAs have membership passes that offer discount stays, which is worth the nominal annual fee after just five stays per year at any of its 500+ locations (with a family of four, KOA is our go-to for weekend travel). It is the closest full-service campground to the Petrified Forest and offers RV hookups, tent camping, and cabins with full amenities including restrooms, a mini store, and fire pits. Regardless of the time of year, this is the perfect place to unwind over a campfire and make s’mores after a day at the park. There are also several hotels in the town that offer ambiance and peace. Regardless of your preference, you will leave full of smiles and serenity.
Petrified Forest National Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset, with visitor centers open daily from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Without a National Parks Pass, entry costs $25 per vehicle (up to 4 adults and children under 12 are included in this fee).
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park boasts one of the rarest cacti in the world, the namesake saguaro that just so happens to be an icon of the Southwest. The nurse tree—also known as Palo Verde, mesquite, or ironwood—provides protection for baby saguaros for the first 10 years of their tiny succulent lives. This protection consists of shielding the baby cactus from frost in the winter and glaring sun in the summer. As the cactus grows, the nurse tree slowly dies and it is then that the saguaro braves and survives the elements of the Sonoran Desert on its own.
By age 35, the saguaro produces its iconic white flowers (the official Arizona state flower). By age 60-75, the cactus begins to form branches, and by age 125, the saguaro is finally an adult, living until it reaches around 200 years of age. Despite its potential for a long life, the saguaro can only grow in certain parts of the Sonoran Desert and requires precise environmental circumstances to make it past the age of 10.
Saguaro National Park is 92,000 acres, home to more than 23,000 of these quirky cacti. You will see young, old, and even (the most rare form) pleated saguaros. While you may explore this beautiful park on your own via hiking, biking, or camping, there is also an option to participate in one of several ranger-led events at the park that are fun and informative.
This park has two entrances (both covered by the $25 entrance fee): Rincon Mountain District (east) and Tucson Mountain District (west). The busiest season is November-March when the weather is more forgiving, but if you are willing to brave the rising temperatures in March, April, June, or July, you will be treated to a feast for the eyes. March is the time for wildflower blooms, so bust out the camera to get all the green, yellow, and orange hue into your quintessential desert photo. April is when the state flower begins to bloom, so try to appreciate this at sunset and see why it was chosen for the Arizona flag.
June beckons the ripening of the fruit, bringing with it the critters who wish to feast upon this desert delicacy. As for July, Arizonans know well that the month marks the monsoon season, so a trip to the park then may result in a mix of petrichor and visual beauty that fantasies are made of. While the visitor centers are open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, the park is open from sunrise to sunset.
Fun idea: If you are engaged and looking for a place to host your wedding, permits are available to host the Southwest soiree worthy of any love story. You may also host a meeting or hold a photography session for a fee. Surrounded by saguaros is a great way to imprint a memory.
There is in-park primitive camping accessible by hiking (by permit only). Primitive hike-in camping may not be for everyone though, and fortunately this park is nearby many places to stay. Tucson/Lazydays KOA is one option for camping, cabins, and RVs. This is an affordable family-friendly option, and if you go in the spring or summer, you can check out Sabino Canyon the next day and dip into a swimming spot complete with a tram and some falls. Or you can drive 45 minutes to explore the Kartchner Caverns in Benson. Tucson also has several hotel, motel, and B&B options if a cozy bed sounds more relaxing after a day in the sun.
If you want a more romantic weekend built around Saguaro National Park, look into Sonoita, where you can stay at a rustic inn and taste the wine from the surrounding vineyards. Regardless of which route you take, you are bound to find some tasty treats and relaxation in the peaceful surroundings, surely inspiring a renewal of sorts.
Saguaro National Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset, the visitor centers are open daily from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., and without a National Parks Pass, entry costs $25 per vehicle (up to 4 adults and children under 12 are included).
Regardless of your budget, both of these national parks hold the promise of an unforgettable weekend. The first trip I took my blended family on was to visit the Petrified Forest and years later, we still speak fondly of it, laughing at our inside jokes and occasionally looking at the photos that show nothing but smiles and beauty.
Staying in Holbrook was right for us, as the small-town vibe allowed us to see more stars than are visible in the valley. The ladies who worked at the diner made us feel at home and there was even a mini fair that added to the fun (go in September for a similar experience). So get out there, book the accommodation that is right for you, consider getting your National Parks Pass, charge your phone/camera, and make some unforgettable Southwestern memories this weekend. It is pretty much always the right time to explore a national park.
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