I left Holbrook, Arizona early in the morning, happy for the heavy clouds which provided relief from the summer heat. I was bound for Dallas via Santa Fe, and had nothing else in mind except arriving as early as possible to squeeze the most out of my two day visit in America’s oldest capital city.
As a kid, my family made many road trips between California and Texas. Not fun discovery trips, but let’s get there as fast as we can and only stop as necessary trips. Consequently, my teenage self found the desert incredibly boring. I was determined to rewrite the story of a desert road trip.
When I saw a sign announcing the exit for the Petrified Forest/Painted Desert National Park, I remembered that I had wanted to stop there – and since I had no one else to answer to, I quickly veered off the highway for the park. It turned out to be one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made.
Join me on my short journey through the Painted Desert. I learned that the desert is not boring at all. In fact, as the Navajo say, ” Doola do’ nizho’ni da?” Nizhoni means beautiful in Navajo. Isn’t it beautiful?
Where is the Painted Desert?
Located in the southeastern part of Arizona, the Painted Desert is part of the Petrified Forest National Park and also extends to the Grand Canyon.
What exactly is the Painted Desert? To me it is an incredible landscape , vast and colorful – where surprising shapes suddenly spring out of the endless plains. Or if I can be more direct, it is badass! But, for a more scientific explanation, I’ve quoted Science Views .
“An expanse of badland hills, flat-topped mesas and buttes. It is an arid land, sparsely vegetated and heavily eroded. The name Painted Desert refers to the rainbow of colorful sedimentary layers exposed in the austere landscape. It is represented by outcroppings of the Late Triassic Period Chinle Formation.”
The Petrified Forest/Painted Desert is a living history book. The colors, hues, and shades, paint a tapestry of time. Imagine that once this was a tropical forest! Dinosaurs walked here.
The colors are formed by layers upon layers of sediment, erosion, and mineral oxides: iron, hematite and more. The harsh yet colorful elements of the landscape combine to make it one of the most unique places I’ve ever experienced.
IF YOU GO
One of the nicest aspects of this park is there are so many ways to enjoy it. You can follow the park’s scenic road with specific lookout points and information about the park. There are marked walking trails, and there is back country hiking and camping. You must obtain a permit but they are free. The beauty of the park is easy to appreciate, even if you’re driving and stopping at lookout points, as I was.
THIS IS IMPORTANT: if you’re driving east on I-40, exit 285 to US 180 east from Holbrook to the south entrance. I totally missed this and so did not get to see the Petrified Forest. Why? Because I drove past exit 285 and got off at exit 311, the north entrance. If I’d stayed on the park road until I reached the south entrance, I would have ended up back in Holbrook again (almost) and I didn’t have time for that. There is a visitor’s center at each entrance to the park. I did stop and have a look around. There’s a nice shop, restaurant, bathrooms, and a museum. It’s a good place to get oriented.
When you enter the park you will stop to pay the entrance fee and you will be given a map with a lot of good information.
Even if you only have a couple of hours, you can still enjoy the park.
Here’s what I did: I entered at the north entrance and drove as far as Newspaper Rock before turning back. Which was a hard decision to make. The rain and cloud formations changed so quickly and created such a dramatic sky, I really did not want to leave. The photo ops were incredible. Plus, the colors of the landscape were more intense in the rain. I was beyond lucky to be in the park on a rainy day. Will I ever have that opportunity again?
No one knows for sure what the symbols mean but what is known is that this area was inhabited by humans for 13,000 years. Thousands of archaeological sites have been found here.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the Tepees! There are hills higher than what you see in the photo below.
Isn’t it Beautiful?