Imagine if God held his hands a mile above the earth and slowly spread his fingers, allowing massive mounds of 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. Much of the Painted Desert is contained on sections of Navajo Nation that are off limits to the public.
Facts about Arizona’s Painted Desert
- Discovered and named by an expedition team under Francisco Vazques de Coronado in 1540
- Covers an area of approximately 93,500 acres
- Stretches 160 miles from east end of Grand Canyon National Park southeast into Petrified Forest National Park and beyond
- Known for brilliant and varied colors ranging from red to white to lavender
- Made up of tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation.
- Rich mineral content in the soil gives the cone-shaped mounds of soil their beautiful colors
- Access by motor vehicle is very limited
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.
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
Map to Painted Desert Viewpoint in Petrified Forest National Park
Begin your quest
- Discover 50 must-see natural wonders
- Get tips on best times to go and how to get permits
- Plan it, do it, journal it
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
Map to Painted Desert Viewpoint in Little Painted Desert County Park
Of all the magnificent natural wonders 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 or Little Painted Desert County Park.
Know of other good vantage points to see Arizona’s Painted Desert? Please tell us where in the comments section below.