Last Updated on March 19, 2022

The Painted Desert is a desert of badlands in the Four Corners area on the border between the United States of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. It is characterized by rocks and minerals of different colors, from red Navajo sandstone to yellow, grey and lavander. The most visited part of the desert is within the Petrified Forest National Park, a United States National Park in eastern Arizona. The name “Petrified Forest” refers to the remnants of ancient trees which have been transformed into brilliantly colored minerals through a series of geological processes.

Painted desert rock colors chinle formation

The Painted Desert

Why is it called the Painted Desert?

The area was named “El Desierto Pintado” (Spanish for “the Painted Desert”) by explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in the 1540s. The desert is made of badlands which are rich in minerals of different vibrant colors, especially red rocks. The colors of the Painted Desert range from red to orange to pink to lavender blue, and also include different shades of grey. These colors often bend together, forming multi-layered “cakes” as the results of millions of years of geomorphological activity, such as winds, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions.

Getting there

The Painted Desert is easily reachable by car by Sedona or Flagstaff in Arizona. The nearest airports are Flagstaff Pulliam Airport and Albuquerque International Sunport. By train, the nearest city to the park you can reach with an Amtrak station is Gallup, New Mexico. The main tourist area of the Painted Desert is the Petrified Forest National Park, but you can also access the desert from Tuba City or Winslow.

Petrified Forest National Park

Tuba City

The most visited area of the Painted Desert is its eastern-end about 115 miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona. The Painted Desert Visitor Center is located in the eastern end of the desert, within the Petrified Forest National Park, about 26 miles east of Holbrook in Navajo County, Arizona.

To visit the western-end of the desert, drive through the US 89 from Flagstaff AZ. Drive north past Cameron, into Tuba City. The city itself is worth a quick stop with its Explore Navajo Interactive Museum and the historic 1905 Tuba City Trading Post which sells authentic American Indian sandpaintings, rugs, jewelry, and pottery.

Little Painted Desert County Park

The Little Painted Desert County Park is located on a lone road north of Winslow. This area of the desert is not well-maintained but the roads are still driveable.

Little Painted Desert County Park, Winslow, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park

The Petriefied Forest National Park is the best and easiest way to experience the Painted Desert. The park features one of the world’s largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood, the multi-hued badlands of the Painted Desert, and displays of 225 million year old fossils.

You can visit the park by car, motorcycle, bike or on foot. If you are driving, you’ll be able to stop at most overlooks, see the paleo lab and take a couple of short trails in a few hours. If you want to experience all that the park has to offer and explore around the backcountry, half a day is needed.

Things to see

  • Painted Desert Visitor Center – exhibits, resturants, souvenir shop and information about the park
  • Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark – museum and gallery space, painted desert vista
  • Rainbow Forest Museum – paleontological exhibits complete with skeleton displays of prehistoric animals
  • Painted Desert Trading Post – off the beaten path, this wonderful historic building is being restored by Route 66 preservationists.

Things to do

  • Drive around – The main park road stretches 28 miles, with plenty of designated areas for parking near overlooks.
  • Cycling – Bicycle and e-bike use is permitted on paved park roads and parking areas open to the public.
  • Hiking – There are many trails for hiking and wilderness areas only reachable on foot. You don’t need a permit for day hiking but you are required to return to your vehicle by closing time.
  • Camping – You can obtain a backpacking permit for free from the Visitor Centre and spent the night at the park.
  • Ranger talk. There are several ranger talks and walks given daily at the Painted Desert Inn, the Puerco Pueblo, and the Rainbow Forest Visitors Center. 
  • Photography. The brilliant shapes and colors in the park’s landscape make excellent photographic subjects. Light can be extremely harsh during mid-day, so it is best to enter the park as soon as the gates open in order to capture the best photographic conditions.
  • Horseback riding. Horses are allowed into the wilderness areas of the park. Trailers can be parked at the Painted Desert Inn, and water for horses is available at the service station near the Painted Desert Visitor Center. No water for horses is available in the wilderness area.
Petrified wood at the Petrified Forest National Park in the Painted Desert of Arizona

Entrance fees

Entrance to the park costs $15 for individuals on foot or bike, $20 for motorcycles, and $25 for private vehicles. The Petrified Forest Annual Pass is available for $45 and allows free park entry for one year. Alternatively, the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass is $80 and allows free entry to all national park areas for one year.

Opening Times

Petrified Forest National Park is open to the public from 8am to 5pm, every day of the year except for Christmas Day. Park hours depend on staffing and may change through out the year, access at night is prohibited without a permit.

Best times to visit

The park can be visited year round. It has summer daytime average temperatures in the 90s F and summer overnight temperatures in the 60s F. Winters are mild, frequently freezing overnight but warming by mid-afternoon to an average of 40 F. Park closures for weather are possible but not frequent.

Taking rocks from the park

Be aware that it is illegal to remove petrified wood or any natural, archaeological, or historical object from the park. When you enter and leave the park, rangers may ask you if have any petrified wood in your possession. The rangers are legally empowered to inspect your vehicle if they are suspicious of theft. Violators will be fined and/or imprisoned. If you have legally purchased any petrified wood or other specimens at a gift shop outside of the Park, retain your receipt and keep the items wrapped and stowed as they were by store personnel.

Painted Desert - The Tepees, Pertified Forest Natoinal Park

Painted Desert Hikes

Painted Desert Rim Trail

Unpaved trail winds through the rim woodland, a place for chance encounters of many species of plants and animals and spectacular views of the Painted Desert.

The Tepees

One of the best spots in the whole Painted Desert to observe the Tepees, 220 to 225 million years old Chinle formations with colorful layers of mudstone and sandstone.

Puerco Pueblo

A paved walk amidst the remains of a hundred room pueblo, occupied by the ancestral Puebloan people over 600 years ago. The remains of the pueblo are interesting, but the real attraction is the petroglyphs which can be viewed along the south end of the trail. 

Giant Logs Trail

Located just behind the Rainbow Forest Museum, the Giant Logs trail features some of the largest and most colorful logs in the park, including the park’s largest, nicknamed the Old Faithful.

Long Logs Trail

An easy 0.6 mile loop trail that is located near the Rainbow Forest Museum. This trail passes through the park’s largest concentration of petrified wood.

Agate House

One way off of the Long Logs Trail, this trail leads to an rebuilt pueblo that was constructed out of petrified wood. Agate House was an eight room home with entered through the ceiling, occupied for a short time around 700 years ago.

Crystal Forest

Named for the presence of beautiful crystals that can be found in the petrified logs, this paved loop trail winds among some particularly colorful petrified logs, and offers one of the best opportunities in the park to see the “petrified” forest.

Read also: Best Desert Travel Destinations in the World

Leave a Reply