Skip to main content

The Painted Desert in Arizona (See Stunning Photos and Videos)

Arizona is a fabulous state filled with beauty and natural wonders. Amazing canyons (Grand!), mountains, and desert scenery await visitors.

The Painted Desert is a must-see if you're ever in northern Arizona.

The Painted Desert is a must-see if you're ever in northern Arizona.

This author has been fortunate enough to have traveled roads in the Arizona desert several times. At times it was with family members, and another time with a good friend from Germany.

Where Is the Painted Desert?

The majority of the 93,500 color-hued acres of rocky badlands known as the Painted Desert is in northern Arizona. It lies between the Grand Canyon National Park and the Petrified Forest National Park. Violent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods have shaped this spectacular landscape. Layers of sandstone and clay come in a kaleidoscopic array of colors.

A small portion of this picturesque so-called "painted" desert is within the Petrified Forest National Park. So one can see some of both areas if plans take you to that particular national park.

Are the Colors Really That Vivid?

Yes! Photos included come from an older 35-millimeter camera that I had at the time. I did not use any special lenses or filters. Aptly named, the vibrant colors one sees in the Painted Desert are incredible and memorable.

If you thrill to vivid beauty

Go where the world was drawn;

At dawn watch the glowing palette

God wiped His brushes on.

— Grace Shattuck Bail, "Painted Desert," in Arizona Highways, August 1968

What to See and Do in the Painted Desert

At the north end of the park, the Painted Desert Visitor Center offers a 17-minute film showing how wood becomes petrified. There is a 27 mile (43 kilometers) drive that takes one through the park. People can stop at frequent pullouts to gaze at the wonder of the various colors of the rock formations and dunes and take pictures if desired.

In two different areas, one can start wilderness hiking and camp with backpacks. A free permit must be secured if planning to camp.

At the southern end of the park is the Rainbow Forest Museum, which also serves as a visitor center. Inside the museum, there are portrayals of human habitation stories within this area, geological history, and exhibits of the petrified wood.

The Painted Desert Inn Museum at Kachina Point was built in the 1920s and renovated by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. One can begin walking in the wilderness area right behind this inn.

Both visitor centers can accommodate one's needs for restroom facilities, water, maps, weather information, permits, and the like. No water is available within the park, so one must transport all one needs to stay hydrated. Remember, this is a desert country, and it can be very unforgiving. Recommendations are that once a person has used up less than one-half of one's water supply, it is good to start a return trip to remain safe.

East of Holbrook, the northern entrance is accessed off Interstate 40, and the southern entrance is off of highway 180 in the northeastern quadrant of the State of Arizona.

Let us hover over the bad lands of the Painted Desert, El Desierto Pintado. Here and there and everywhere, are patches of red, green, blue, yellow, madder, lake, orange, green, violet, pink and every color known to man. It is as if this was the place where divine thoughts were tested for man's benefit, and then the pallet-board was left for man to see, to wonder at and revere.

— George Wharton James, Arizona, the Wonderland, 1917 [a little altered –tg]

Native Americans in Arizona

Arizona has some nineteen million acres of reservations set aside for fourteen different Native American tribes who live there. These lands belong to them, and one must abide by their rules. In some instances, photography is not allowed. Most Native Americans are proud to display and sell their artwork consisting of tapestries, pottery, jewelry, etc.

Just north (and a small portion east) of the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest National Park is a large Navajo Indian Reservation. Much of the Painted Desert lies within the Navajo Nation. A Hopi Indian Reservation is in the center of the Navajo Indian lands, and the two reservations adjoin one another. South of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park is the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and the San Carlos Indian Reservation.

If one has some extra time and wishes to find out about Native American culture, Arizona offers many choices of places to explore.

Locations where you will find most of the Painted Desert

To see much more of the Painted Desert, including what is inside the visitor's center, watch the beautiful video below. The filming took place in various lighting conditions.

Silence and solitude, the soul's best friends.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sources for Further Reading:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Peggy Woods