Today Interstate 40 transverses the northern portion of Petrified Forest National Park, however, it is just the latest of several roads and highways that have followed this same route for more than a century.
The first major road was the Beale Wagon Road constructed in 1857 across New Mexico and Arizona. It passes through the Petrified Forest just north of present Interstate Highway 40.
This road is famous in part because it represented the first and only time the U. S. Army tried to use camels for transportation in the desert. Later, portions of this road, including the Petrified Forest section, were used for stagecoach travel along the Star Mail route between Santa Fe New Mexico and Prescott, Arizona.
In 1912 a new road alignment that followed the Beale Road was established. This road was officially designated the National Old Trails Highway and stretched from Baltimore, Maryland to Los Angeles, California.
In some places such as eastern Arizona the road was divided into southern and northern routes and both pass through the Petrified Forest. In 1926 the northern route was designated U.S. Route 66.
Route 66, also known as the Will Roger’s Highway or more simply as the “Mother Road” was the first major paved highway through the area and is accordingly one of the most famous roads in American culture.
In Arizona it paralleled the railroad, following the Beale and National Old Trails Roads and in some cases incorporated portions of these older roads. A variety of motor courts, eateries, and other establishments lined its edges.
The Painted Desert Inn was one of these numerous stops along the way from the 1920s through the 1950s. In Petrified Forest National Park Route 66 bisected the main park highway. Signs directed travelers either north to the Painted Desert Inn and overlooks or south to the main petrified wood deposits or ‘forests’.
Bypassed by a new alignment (now Interstate 40) in the late 1950s the route today is marked only by the remnants of the raised roadbed, a lonely line of telephone poles, and a park exhibit marking the old intersection. a tribute to this remarkable America icon.