The Painted Desert is a beautifully colourful, yet unforgiving, landscape that stretches from near Grand Canyon National Park to the Petrified Forest National Park.
Make no mistake about it, as stunning as the landscapes are in this part of the US, this is rough desert terrain termed badlands. One of the best places to gain an appreciation of the vastness of these badlands in Arizona is to head out on the Painted Desert Rim Trail.
This trail offers up some of the best panoramic views of the desert below, as it winds along the rim, alongside steep cliffs dotted with stunted vegetation. As you hike along the Rim Trail, each bend and turn opens up a new, impressive landscape. Odd colours, interesting wildlife and strange formations can make your mind wander in this sometimes make-believe looking landscape.
A great spot to start this short hiking trail is at the Painted Desert Inn. This historic landmark is a museum today (sorry, no options to stay at the “inn”!) so you can get a good understanding of the history of these badlands dating back to when the Inn was first built in the 1920’s.
A dirt path near the inn at Kachina Point marks the start of this trail, which can also be accessed just down the road at Tawa Point. You’re within the Petrified Forest National Park here. The views you’ll enjoy along the hike are out towards the backcountry wilderness, which is largely Navajo Nation. Special overnight permits are required to head off trail in this area, with the Painted Desert Wilderness Access Trail being the most common path taken into the vast wilderness. Permits are free and can be obtained at the Visitor Centre.
Taking in the Painted Desert by hiking along the rim, will help you scope out potential areas to hike out to if you do plan to set up camp and do a longer hike afterwards. But if you’re road-tripping or short on time, this is your best hiking option in the park.
At only 1 mile roundtrip, it is a family-friendly and fairly flat hike. With that said, the rim trail is not paved, and it does meander along some steep areas, so always be aware of your surroundings. There are a few landmarks to keep an eye out for as well.
As you hike along the trail, look for Pilot Rock, which is northwest of where you’ll be hiking. At 6235 feet high, this is the highest point in the entire Petrified Forest National Park. Hint: it isn’t really a peak, but more of a flat top, volcanic-crater look. Yes, indeed it was formed from volcanic activity!
As for the colourful, strange rock formations in the park that is due to millions of years of erosion washing away the softer rocks. Rocks like mudstone and shale are much softer than volcanic rocks and limestone, which is why you get interesting flat-topped mesas and steep cliffs in this area. Expect grey, red, white, black and other layered colours of rocks along your hike.
As the Painted Desert Rim Trail hikes along some areas with a bit of vegetation, tread slowly and quietly, and you may spot some desert wildlife ranging from collared lizards to antelope squirrels – even some of the wildlife here has interesting names.
For more information about this hiking trail and other nearby trails, visit the Petrified Forest National Park website at: