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Backpack the Petrified Forest Backcountry

Calistoga, California

based on 1 reviews



60 miles

Elevation Gain

2000 ft

Route Type



Added by Elsie Vanderveer

Highly diverse terrain, soft sand, scenic bluffs, and layers upon layers of history and natural landscape. Discover natural wildlife, ancient Indian artifacts (to be left in the park), natural vegetation, petroglyph marks, and of course petrified wood and colorful crystals.

By far a favorite of mine--this backpacking excursion can be done as a one day one way or multi-day loop. Each way is over 28 miles with varying elevation, but considering it is backcountry, mileage will vary by adventures taken and routes observed. Each visit is different from the last. My favorite option is to hike 3/4 of the way north, starting at the Petrified Forest Southern Entrance (where you will find free parking and camping) and heading north along the eastern side of the park. Alternately you can start on the north end at the Painted Desert Visitor Center. But there are literally infinite options, permitting you can read a compass or sunlight.

Along the eastern wilderness area you will discover the diverse expanse of petrified logs, flat tops, crystals, painted desert formations, and miles of washes. Backpacking the backcountry affords closer views of the national park not accessed from the main road.

Caution should be used in rainy seasons for flash floods. It gets muddy! Terrain is a mix of sand, clay, stone, and desert vegetation. Lots of dunes to scramble and bluffs to boulder.

Sample itinerary:

Day One:
  • Park at Petrified Forest Entrance Museum
  • Park opens at 7:00am so permitting you have one, a permit that is, I like to start as early as possible
  • Hike along Cottonwood Wash through the wilderness area and across the flattops (perfect in the early morning) to the Billings Gap
  • Set-up camp day one at Billings on the soft sand and enjoy the evening light at the bottom of the Blue Mesa/ Forest
Day Two:
  • Continue north and cross the Puerto River/ Santa Fe Railway, following Dead Wash about 5 miles.
  • Route direct north to the Painted Desert Visitors Center for hydration refills (you'll have to maneuver over Route 66)
  • Hike north to Onyx Bridge, and turn southwest through the Black Forest to Wildhorse Wash.
  • Play on the playground of Devils (Devils Playground)
  • Head south directly or follow Lithodendron Wash to Dry Wash
  • Push to Twin Buttes and camp for the night
Day Three:
  • Follow Buttes southeast to Martha's Butte and explore more petroglyph sites.
  • Continue southwest through the Rainbow Forest along Jim Camp Wash back to Forest Southern Entrance.

Check the weather for thunderstorms, hailstorms and rain.

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Easy Parking

Backpack the Petrified Forest Backcountry Reviews

Beware the curse! Don't remove any petrified wood!

Leave No Trace

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!


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