Painted Desert

Visit Arizona’s colorful badlands in the northeast corner of the state.

When Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado traveled through this area in the 1540s, he called the multi-hued expanse of pigmented rock “El Desierto Pintado.” Today, travelers driving along I-40 are treated to a landscape of badlands that extend some 150 miles from the eastern end of the Grand Canyon into Petrified National Forest. The mesas in the area climb up in stratified layers pigmented by pink, orange and purple mineral deposits. Much of this colorful destination lies in remote areas of the Navajo Nation, where tribal regulations are enforced.

Take a Scenic Drive

To see the colorful hills, flat-topped mesas and weathered buttes in Arizona’s arid high desert, visitors start at the Painted Desert Visitor Center located off exit 311 on I-40. This leads visitors to Main Park Road, which loops from the visitor center back out to I-40. It’s a short drive with multiple stops at pullouts along the way to snap photos or simply look in awe at the natural surroundings. Visitors who plan a trip to the area when spring wildflowers bloom do not believe their eyes.

Stretch Your Legs

Most visitors drive through Petrified Forest National Park before heading north to explore the Painted Desert. The Painted Desert Rim Trail takes hikers along a canyon rim and presents wide-open views of the colorful geology. Be on the lookout for Tawa Point, where the trailhead begins. Surprises along the trail include the historic Painted Desert Inn, with roots related to homesteading, Route 66 and indigenous heritage. The Tawa Trail can also be picked up at Tawa Point or from the Painted Desert Visitor Center. This easy 1.2-mile stroll winds through high desert grasslands. Continue north on Highway 77 to enter the sacred lands of the Navajo Nation and to explore the pueblos of the Hopi Tribe.

Stay the Night

To marvel at the beauty of the Painted Desert, visitors pass through the magnificent Petrified Forest National Park. And the landscapes of the Painted Desert feature remnants of fossilized trees. It’s a Northern Arizona two-fer perfect for outdoor enthusiasts and photographers. Plan an overnight to get the most out of this Northern Arizona excursion. Holbrook is the nearest town with hotels near the Painted Desert. This former Route 66 outpost adds mid-century kitsch to the pristine natural area. Along Main Park Road, be on the lookout for the viewpoint that overlooks old telephone poles and traces of the segment of Historic Route 66 that once passed through the area.

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