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Hiking The Painted Desert


Found in: | Outside | Hiking | Where to Go |

" All the freaky people make the beauty of the world. - Michael Franti "

Getting Started

INFORMATION Petrified Forest National Park, P.O. Box 2217, Petrified Forest, AZ 86028-2217; (928) 524-6228, (Books and maps are available at the three park visitor centers.)

Straddling Interstate 40 about 20 miles east of Holbrook, Ariz., Petrified Forest National Park is best known for the huge amount of fossilized wood found in the area. But relatively few visitors know that Petrified Forest is a great place to hike.

This is a high desert park, lying at about 5,500 feet and occupying 218,533 acres of the colorful Painted Desert in the Colorado Plateau country of northeastern Arizona. Layers of shale, primarily from the Chinle Formation, have eroded into classic desert badlands of steep, small hills and slopes with abrupt transitions to nearly level valley floors. Minerals within the shale color it various shades of gray, brown, purple, pink, blue, and green. During the middle of the day, the Painted Desert may appear nearly colorless, but when the light is low, especially in the "golden hours" just after sunrise or before sunset, the subtle colors come alive and seem to glow and change almost minute by minute.
Since there are no campgrounds and the park closes at night, most visitors miss the best light to see the Painted Desert. Backpackers are the lucky ones because the park has 52,000 acres of designated wilderness where backcountry camping is allowed. Not only can wilderness campers experience the full range of desert light from dawn to dusk, they also get to see the stunning night skies made possible by the clear, unpolluted air and the park's distance from major cities.
A free permit is required for backpacking and can be obtained at any of the park visitor centers. Although backpacking is allowed in both the south and north wilderness areas, most hikers prefer the larger, northern wilderness. Kachina Point provides trailhead parking and there is a short access trail leading north. After this trail ends, all hiking is cross country through the open desert. There is no water in the backcountry so wilderness campers must carry all they need.
Day hiking is also possible in the park. In addition to cross-country hiking in the northern section of the park wilderness, there are several short interpretive trails that explain natural features. Starting from the Rainbow Forest Museum near the south entrance, The Agate House Trail and Long Logs Loop can be combined for a total of 2.6 miles. The .4-mile Giant Logs Loop also starts from the Rainbow Forest Museum.
North along the park road, Crystal Forest Loop Trail is 0.8 miles and loops through an area containing many petrified logs, some of which have beautiful crystals. Blue Mesa Loop Trail is located east of the main park road, along the Blue Mesa Road. This 1.0 mile loop drops off the rim of Blue Mesa and loops through a surreal badlands. A bit further north, near where the park road crosses Puerco River, the .3 mile Puerco Pueblo Trail loops past a pueblo ruin and a petroglyph site.
And finally, there's the 1-mile round trip on the Painted Desert Rim Trail, starting from Tawa Point at the north end of the park road. This trail offers sweeping views of the Painted Desert in the northernmost portion of the park.
Since this is high desert, winters can be cold with occasional snow storms. Between storms the shale desert can be very muddy. Summers are hot with high temperatures in the 90s. Spring and fall are the seasons of choice for hikers.
A word of warning: Like all national parks, collection or removable of any natural feature is prohibited in Petrified Forest National Park. Yet some visitors often succumb to the temptation to pocket a small piece of petrified wood. Of course, over time, this would result in the destruction of the park's resources. For this reason, all vehicles leaving the park are subject to search.

Bruce Grubbs is an active outdoor writer and and photographer with 20 books in print. His "day job" is flying air charters. His web site is

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