painted desert afternoon

The Painted Desert: where rocks morph into fiery colors

The Painted Desert is a vast rocky badlands alongside historic Route 66 that stretches from Arizona’s Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest.  Funny little tidbit: The Painted Desert isn’t a desert at all; it’s actually the largest intact Grassland in the Southwest.

painted desert afternoon

We had no idea the Painted Desert covered such a wide area and we weren’t sure what to expect from this national park.  The park receives little to no recognition, or visitors, in comparison to its neighbor the Grand Canyon, and to be perfectly honest we weren’t convinced it was worth freezing our butts off (it was 20 degrees) or the drive.

bundled up

What eventually sparked our interest was the rumor of how the park received its name:  While standing at the edge of this vast badlands a Spanish explorer is claimed to announce “El Desierto Pintado” after watching the vibrant colors light up the landscape at sunset.  Sounds like a photographers Dream right?  Could this area possibly live up to such a name, or deserve the National Park status?

a snowy painted desert

We started our visit at the Petrified Forest which had us locked in frozen stares and posing as dinosaurs, but when the sun set and the Painted Desert lit up like a fire cracker, we were awe struck.  Rocks came in every hue from deep lavenders and rich grays to oranges, pinks and fiery reds.  It seemed wherever the sun kissed the rocks the view would morph and burst into a radiant display of Technicolor.

painted desert at sunset

These are scenes from story books and fairy tales, the place where mystical creatures magically appear with the touch of the sun….or, at least that’s what we were thinking.  What actually created this visual masterpiece was millions of years of violent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods, not magic (or was it).  If that doesn’t get your brain swirling with visuals and thought, the sight of perfectly striped layers of sandstone and clay ought to do the trick.

sunset at the painted desert

So, if you haven’t figured it out by now, we can see how the park got its name.

From our experience the Painted Desert is best at Sunrise and Sunset as the colors truly ‘pop’ off nature’s canvas.  Don’t expect more than a few roadside pullouts as we were let down with the lack of hiking in this area (there is the Rim Trail however it is flat and not much different than the scenery you’ll see while driving).  The Painted Desert Inn was closed both times we passed by, which is a shame as the recent restoration looks beautiful (don’t expect to stay at the inn, or see it at night like the Park Website shows as the park closes at Dusk).  So the short of it:  If you’re planning a visit to the Petrified Forest make sure you swing by the Painted Desert and make sure you’re there for Sunset!

If you’ve had a different experience at the Painted Desert tell us your take on it in the comments below.

Hello there! I honestly don’t know what to say, so I am going to tell you a bunch of random facts instead. I'm a fish eating vegetarian who hates spiders and loves snakes. I almost never took vacations growing up. I wanted to be Pippi Longstocking (still do). I misspell about every other word I write and still struggle with grammar. I love splurging on a good high tea (which is really hard to find these days). And whatever you do, don’t tell me I can’t do something, because then I'll HAVE to do it!

Comments (14)

  • Jannette

    Thank you for this blog! I am planning a trip out West and I am looking for answers to random questions about the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest areas. We will be entering the park from Flagstaff area so it will take us about 2 hours. I want to see the desert at sunset so my question is: What is the best area to stop to see the sunset and still have enough time to get out of the park before the 6pm close time? Also, is there anything else in the area to do during the day? Is a day trip enough? Do you have any restaurant recommendations?
    Thank you in advance for any suggestions, nice blog BTW.

  • Painted Desert Inn is a renovated National Historic Landmark that functions solely as a museum and bookstore. We visited it in October 2011. The Painted Desert is not a National Park. It’s actually an extensive badlands desert that covers a large area between Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest. A significant portion of it lies on Navajo lands.

    I’ve got some pictures of the inn, interior and exterior, on my Petrified Forest and Painted Desert album on Flickr.

    • Mike,
      The portion of the Painted Desert we visited was part of the Petrified Forest National Park, which as you point out is only a tiny piece of the beauty.
      Thanks for sharing the photos.

  • My wife and I stopped there in our “Big Holes” tour ( Grand Canyon to Meteor Crater ) and it was great.

  • Thom Hoch

    I can find no reference to a “Painted Desert National Park” on the NPS website. Nor is such a thing listed in Wikipedia under National Parks of the United States. What am I missing?

  • Niiki looks a lot like my little puppy PBJ.

    Lol – miss you guys.

    • Of course you would comment on the fashion of this post ;). Miss you guys too, but don’t worry we’ll be passing through CO again soon.

  • I was looking forward to seeing your Painted Desert pictures and I am not disappointed. Beautiful!!! (I love the one of Nikki) We went at sunset and I thought it was magical.

  • Haven’t heard of the Painted Desert before, but its sounds magical.
    Somethings are worth the cold temperature and it sure looks like this place is 🙂

    Funny how the Painted Dessert Inn wasn’t open – you would think with recent renovations they would want business.
    Thanks for sharing your gorgeous photos.

  • It looks beautiful and wish I had taken the time to see it when we were in the area.

    • Carol Ann, if you pass through Northern Arizona again the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert NP are both worth a visit. Safe travels.


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