Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park
Right along the New Mexico border, Arizona welcomes westbound travelers with an overwhelming display of trading-post tackiness—huge concrete tepees stand at the foot of brilliant red-rock mesas, while gift shops hawk their souvenirs to passing travelers. The gift shops themselves may not be all that attractive, but the old Route 66 frontage road along here, a.k.a. Hwy-118 between exit 8 in New Mexico and exit 357 in Arizona, is truly spectacular, running at the foot of red-rock cliffs. If you like rocks, gems, and petrified wood, a fine collection is for sale at the endearingly strange Stewart’s Petrified Wood Trading Post, marked by a family of animated dinosaurs at I-40 exit 303.
A great introduction to the Four Corners region, the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site (928/755-3254, $2), 38 miles north of I-40 from exit 333 and a mile west of the town of Ganado, is a frontier store preserved as it was in the 1870s, when trader John Hubbell began buying the beautiful rugs made by local Navajo weavers.
The easternmost 60-mile stretch of I-40 across Arizona is little more than one long speedway, since almost any sign of the old road has been lost beneath the four-lane Interstate. One place that’s worth a stop here is Petrified Forest National Park (928/524-6228, daily dawn-dusk, $10 per car). The polished petrified wood on display in the visitors center is gorgeous to look at, but seeing 93,000 acres of the stuff in its raw natural state is not, to be honest, particularly thrilling. The story of how the wood got petrified is interesting, though: About 225 million years ago, a forest was buried in volcanic ash, then slowly embalmed with silica and effectively turned to stone. Alongside the visitors center at the entrance to the park, there’s a handy restaurant and a gas station.
While the park contains a vast array of prehistoric fossils and pictographs as well as the petrified wood, one of the more interesting sights is the old Painted Desert Inn, a Route 66 landmark during the 1920s and 1930s that was converted into a museum and bookstore after the Park Service took it over in the 1960s. The pueblo-style building, now restored to its 1920s splendor with lovely murals, Navajo rugs and sand paintings, and handcrafted furnishings, is perched on a plateau overlooking the spectacularly colored Painted Desert that stretches off toward the northern horizon.