If you want to see and photograph Arizona’s Painted Desert head to one of these spots

Imagine if God held his hands a mile above the earth and slowly spread his fingers, allowing colorful sand to slip through and fall into spectacular mounds on the desert floor below. That begins to describe Arizona’s Painted Desert.

Although the Painted Desert is huge, it’s not exactly easy to find places to view it. That’s because much of the Painted Desert is contained on sections of Navajo Nation that are off limits to the general public.

Two dimensional map showing where the Painted Desert lies in Arizona
This map shows the location of the colorful badlands area of Arizona known as the Painted Desert. It spans from the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon approximately 160 miles southeast to the town of St. John.
Source: tripadvisor.com via clintonctfire.com

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Facts about Arizona’s Painted Desert

  • Discovered and named by an expedition team under Francisco Vazques de Coronado in 1540
  • Rich mineral content in the soil gives the cone-shaped mounds of soil their beautiful colors
  • Brilliant and varied colors ranging from red to white to lavender
  • Stretches 160 miles from east end of Grand Canyon National Park southeast into Petrified Forest National Park and beyond
  • Covers an area of approximately 93,500 acres
  • Tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation
  • Access by motor vehicle is very limited

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Great vantage points to see the Painted Desert in Arizona

Don’t rely on a simple Google search to get you to “the Painted Desert.” When I set out to see the Painted Desert in September 2019, Google Maps led me to the gravel driveway of a private property with a small home and a few cars on it.

Learn from my experience and head to one of the two spots below for views that you won’t soon forget.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park is one of the best places to see and experience the Painted Desert in Arizona. True, the park is best known for remnants of wood from massive trees that were turned to stone millions of years ago. But there’s plenty more to see than petrified wood.

  • There are two park entrances: one on the north end and one on the south
  • A 26-mile pave road connects the two entrances
  • Painted Desert is best viewed in the northern half of Petrified Forest National Park
  • Entrance requires $20 fee or America the Beautiful annual pass
  • For additional details visit nps.gov/pefo
striking pic of a colorful butte in Arizona's Painted Desert
This striking pic of a colorful butte in Arizona’s Painted Desert was taken from the road that runs through Petrified Forest National Park
petrified wood in foreground, mound of colorful soil in the background
Beautiful reddish petrified wood in foreground makes for a striking contrast against the backdrop of a colorful mound of soil in the background. Location: Petrified Forest National Park
Close up view of eroded soil in Petrified Forest National Park
Close up view of eroded soil in Petrified Forest National Park

Map to Painted Desert Viewpoint in Petrified Forest National Park

Little Painted Desert County Park

Another spectacular vantage point for viewing the Painted Desert in Arizona is the Little Painted Desert County Park, 17 miles northeast of Winslow.

As far as parks go, this one’s pretty light on amenities. It’s basically a parking area with a few shaded picnic areas and a couple buildings suffering from decades of neglect. On the plus side, there’s no admission fee or crowds to deal with.

  • From Interstate 40 (Exit 257) near Winslow take County Rd 282 14 miles northeast, then left on Painted Desert Rim Drive
  • No fee or permit required for entrance
  • Park and walk along the half-mile-long rim road and venture out for pictures
  • Low sun angles around sunrise and sunset create the best visual effects
Panoramic view of colorful mounds of soil in Arizona's Painted Desert
View to the north from Little Painted Desert County Park overlook
Close up view of colorful mounds of soil at Little Painted Desert County Park in Arizona
Close up view of colorful mounds of soil at Little Painted Desert County Park in Arizona

Map to Painted Desert Viewpoint in Little Painted Desert County Park

Highway 89 between Tuba City and Cameron

Another great place to experience Arizona’s Painted Desert is just off Highway 89 between Flagstaff and Page, Arizona. Look for the Tuba City exit at around mile marker 480. You can take the turnoff eastward toward Tuba City on Highway 160 or just admire the desert from your vehicle as you travel between this point and the town of Cameron.

There is no designated lookout point from which to take in the marvelous layers of colored earth; so basically you’ll need to find safe places to pull off the road and admire God’s artwork.

Of all the magnificent natural wonders to see in Arizona, the Painted Desert is among the most underappreciated, mainly because there aren’t many places to view it. Want to experience it for yourself? Grab your camera and click the maps above to head to either Petrified Forest National Park, Little Painted Desert County Park or Tuba City.

Know of other good vantage points to see Arizona’s Painted Desert? Please tell us where in the comments section below.


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