Painted Desert

Colorful badlands meet the Mother Road in Arizona’s high desert.

Looking like pastel mounds of Neapolitan ice cream, Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert is a vast, striated badlands that extends some 150 miles from the eastern end of the Grand Canyon into Petrified Forest National Park. A geologist’s other-worldly paradise, the colorful hills, flat-topped mesas and sculptured buttes of the Painted Desert are primarily made up of the Chinle Formation, mainly river-related deposits dating back some 200 million years. Inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years, the multi-hued sweep of pigmented rock in the arid high desert received its present name in the 1540s from the Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, who called the area El Desierto Pintado.


While much of the Painted Desert is located in remote areas of the Navajo Nation, the portion within the northern section of Petrified Forest National Park is the easiest to access. Get your bearings through the interpretive exhibits at the Painted Desert Visitor Center. If you’re short on time, the best place to see the Painted Desert is via a drive on the Main Park Road, which makes a loop from the visitor center and back out to Interstate 40. Plenty of pullouts and interpretive signage offer reasons to stop, learn, view and take that Instagram-worthy shot of the landscape. Need to get in your daily steps? The Tawa and Painted Desert Rim trails get you into the grassland ecosystem and offer wide-open views of colorful geology. Keep your eyes peeled for coyotes, jackrabbits, pronghorn, mule deer, hawks and other locals. Hiking the sunny trails in spring and late summer? Seasonal rains make wildflowers blossom.

Get Your Kicks

A segment of the Historic Route 66 alignment ran through The Painted Desert and is now part of the northern section of Petrified Forest National Park. Though this segment is no longer in use, old telephone poles and traces of roadbed mark the remains of the Mother Road, visible from a vista point along the Main Park Road. Geocacher alert: The park has some physical geocaches that are part of the Historic Route 66 Geocaching Project.


Continue your kicks in Holbrook, just outside the park, which offers more Route 66 nostalgia, including a chance to spend the night in the circa-1950 Wigwam Motel, famous for its series of vintage concrete and steel teepees. The town also offers places to grab lunch and gas up, plus other options for hotels near the Painted Desert.

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