Barely doable in a 2 driver day trip from Tucson, and much better with an overnight, is Petrified Forest National Park. Although not overly far (relatively speaking) in a straight line, there really isn’t a straight route between the two. The most scenic and direct route is highway 60, but most of the way it’s a rambling 2 lane blacktop more to be enjoyed for itself than as a connector between points A and B. The easiest driving route is to take the interstates through Phoenix and Flagstaff; the extra hundred miles or so end up only adding a few minutes to the trip.
A unique aspect of Petrified Forest is that it is a drive-through park. Not so much in the sense that you don’t get out of your car, but in the sense that the road through the park is not a loop. You enter in the south or north and generally exit at the other end (though of course you could turn back at any desired point).
The park is actually three parks in one. The southern section is mainly focused on the park’s namesake petrified wood. The middle section tends more toward geology (though there is still plenty of petrified wood around). The northern section focuses on vistas of the painted desert and archeological sites.
As National Parks go it’s a relatively low-key park and very enjoyable; though it’s a bit sad to see how much effort they have to apply to deter would-be petrified wood thieves. It’s the only park I’ve been in that distributes forms to turn in if you observe someone breaking the rules. Likewise on entry to the park you need to register any petrified wood items you may have from outside the park and when you exit there is a departure inspection; hopefully these efforts will be sufficient to preserve the ability for everyone to freely wander through the expanses of petrified wood.
Having only previously seen petrified wood in it’s worked and polished state, I was surprised to see just how detailed the unworked material was. Although some pieces appeared more like rock with embedded gemstones, others looked like pieces of freshly cut firewood or chips remaining from a day of chopping kindling.
For me the highlight of the park is the middle section, particularly blue mesa, where surreal geology is studded with pieces of petrified wood almost like gravel in a streambed. It’s a very unique space.
By the time I stopped of at the ruins of a pueblo and reached the painted desert section near sunset I had pretty much already been visually saturated for the day but was able to hold out for just a few minutes more and enjoy the interplay of light and color on the landscape stretching into the distance. A novel highlight of this section is where a grassy strip and a rusty car delineates where Route 66 used to pass through.