Petrified Forest doesn't require pesky camping reservation
The national park camping reservation season for next summer is here, but this Arizona park has no campground. Just get a permit the day you want to camp, then hike a mile from your vehicle.
Here’s a national park camping opportunity you don’t need to book six months out: Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
Wait, you say, the park celebrated its 105th birthday as a national monument recently and still doesn’t have a campground! No problem, because that means you’re likely to have the place all to yourself. Let me explain.
With the boom in outdoor recreation demand brought on by the pandemic, some national park campgrounds need to be booked the day they become available for reservation, at recreation.gov. That’s usually six months out, to the day.
Snooze you lose.
That’s not the case everywhere, but it’s going in that direction. I just booked two reservations for late next spring. At Grand Canyon North Rim it was down to the last spots by the time I got on the website midday six months out, while Bryce Canyon North camp had plenty to pick from, six months out.
Elsewhere at Four Corners area national parks, Arches, Zion, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands campgrounds pretty much book full for peak season the day they become available, while Mesa Verde hardly ever books full. It’s all about supply and demand, and the size of the campground. (Cancelations will make sites available later.)
Petrified Forest has no campground or park lodge. The park is designed as a drive-through experience, on old Route 66 and modern Interstate 40. Holbrook, Arizona, has the closest lodging and camping 24 miles to the west. Congress upgraded Petrified Forest from national monument to national park in 1962.
Actually, you probably wouldn’t want to camp at Petrified Forest anyway because those petrified trees don’t cast much shade. Summers in northeast Arizona can get hot; it’s bearable to tour the park and hike some short trails, but sitting around a campground where there’s no water to grow shade trees would not be pleasant.
So look at Petrified Forest as a one-night stand for camping, as long as you don’t mind walking a bit and have brought the right equipment along. Longer stays are possible, but lack of water and lack of shade beyond a few scattered junipers must be considered during planning.
After touring the park for the day, head for the south or north visitor centers by 4 p.m. to get a required permit (they close at 4:30 p.m., or get the permit early in the same day you want to camp). The permit is as much for parking overnight as for camping, because the park scenic drive is gated closed at night to protect the petrified wood. Vehicles aren’t allowed in the park overnight, unless they have a permit and are parked in two designated areas. The permit is free and there are no quotas, though large groups should check with the park in advance. You must leave the vehicle and actually find a spot to camp, a mile or more away.
Display the permit in your vehicle, then take a hike of at least one mile. Overnight camps must be set up out of sight from park roads, which means you need not hike much more than that mile. Don’t go so far that you get lost trying to find your way back.
If it’s a typical spring to fall night, you won’t need a tent (unless you want protection from desert critters). But don’t go without a tent in summer monsoon season, or even camp at all because of flash flood and lightning dangers. You can eat dinner before leaving your vehicle and go light, just bringing all your water, a jacket and a bedroll. You can be back at your vehicle and at a visitor center before nature calls in the morning.
It’s quite the experience on a full moon night, when you have the Painted Desert all to yourself.
Want a bit of irony? Petrified Forest is a registered dark sky park, even though the only visitors allowed in the park at night are backcountry campers with a permit.
And the best thing is you don’t need a reservation, there is no fee and you don’t need to plan six months out. Sorry, recreation.gov, you won’t get to keep the reservation fee when this night needs to be canceled because of change of plans.