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On Walkabout At: The Painted Desert, Arizona

Basic Information

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Narrative

While on our way to Prescott, Arizona my family and I made it a point to stop and check out the Petrified Forest National Park.  After about a six hour drive that morning from Albuquerque, New Mexico that included a stop in Gallup, New Mexico we arrived at the park. The park is located outside of the small town of Holbrook, Arizona:


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The Petrified Forest National Park is divided into two sections by I-40 and each section is quite distinct from each other.  The northern section is where the Painted Desert is located while the southern section is where the petrified forest can be found:


Map from the Petrified Forest NP Wikipedia page.

We started our visit to the park on the north side since the Painted Desert Visitor Center was located near I-40:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

When we pulled into the visitor center it was pretty packed, but there was not a whole lot of people walking around outside probably because of how hot it was:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

The inside of the visitor had some really good displays about the geologic and cultural history of the park.  Native Americans are believed to have traveled through this area for up to 13,000 years.  Considering the desolate landscape I cannot imagine any of them would have much success living here though.  Despite the landscape being desolate it is quite beautiful and has an interesting geology.  Here is how the various rock features and colors of the Painted Desert were formed according to the National Park’s website:

The colorful mudstones and clays of the Painted Desert badlands are composed of bentonite, a product of altered volcanic ash. The clay minerals in the bentonite can absorb water to as much as seven times their dry volume. The expansion and contraction properties of the bentonite cause rapid erosion by preventing much vegetation from growing on the slopes of the hills.

Other prominent features created by erosion are mesas and buttes. Both have flat tops of more erosion-resistant sandstone over softer clays. Mesas are quite broad but not very tall, while buttes are taller and more narrow. In this picture sandstone caps the top of an eroding mesa. The sandstone is more erosion resistant than the claystone underneath. Eventually the harder rock will erode away, leaving the softer claystone underneath exposed to the elements. This will then become another rolling bentonite hill within the badland landscape.[Petrified Forest NP website]

Outside the visitor center there is also a display of a petrified tree:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

The northern section of the park does not contain these petrified trees, they are primarily located in the southern section of the park.  So the tree they had at the visitor center is the only one that can be seen in the northern section.  However, the tree was not the most visited sight outside of the visitor, this little dinosaur statue was attracting a lot of tourists who wanted to be seen with the little critter:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

From the visitor center we next went to the checkpoint where the Park Ranger takes fees for entering the park.  It is $10 per vehicle to enter the Painted Desert, but I have an annual National Park Pass and was thus able to go through free of charge.  From checkpoint it is a short drive to the first look out over the incredible vistas of the Painted Desert at Tiponi Point:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

I took these series of photographs looking to the east and scanning from right to left across the vista:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

The reddish hills within this huge hole in the ground were just amazing to see:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

It was pretty obvious that this area had a volcanic past considering the incredible colors on display:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Here is a panorama I took of the view from Tiponi Point using my iPhone 4S:

Panorama Picture of the Painted Desert, Arizona

The next vista we drove to was over at Tawa Point:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Once again the views were just so impressive.  I could have spent all day just taking pictures of the vistas created by all these beautifully colored hills:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Looking at the colorful scene in front of me it was easy to understand why the Spanish explorers who became the first non-Native Americans to travel through this area in the 16th century called this landscape “El Desierto Pintado” which translates into English as the “Painted Desert”:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Later when this became American territory after the Mexican-American War that ended in 1848, US Army Lieutenant Amiel Whipple surveyed this route and was the first person to document the finding of petrified trees.  Since then ranchers moved into the Painted Desert and used its large grasslands to raise cows and sheep.  When the park land became protected the grazers could no longer use the park to graze, but to this day the park is surrounded by large ranches that continue to use the high desert grassland to raise livestock.

Here is a panorama I took from Tawa Point once again using my iPhone:

Panorama Picture of the Painted Desert, Arizona

From Tawa Point to the north I could see a large adobe building on a bluff that my map had labeled as the Painted Desert Inn:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

We next drove over to the Painted Desert Inn to check it out:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

The Painted Desert Inn really is a beautiful building out in the middle of no where.  It was constructed by a rancher named Herbert Lore in 1924.  The inn back then was nicknamed the “Stone Tree House” because it was constructed of petrified wood as the below picture shows:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

In 1935 Lore sold the Painted Desert Inn to the National Park Service for $59,400.  Since then the inn has been remodeled a number of times to where it now has an adobe exterior and used solely as a museum.  Inside there are a number of pictures and displays about the regions history to include its Route 66 ties:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

I was a bit surprised that the Park Service did not have a cafe of some sort operating here because it would be a great place to sit down and look out the windows from while having a snack and coffee:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Behind the inn there is another lookout known as Kachina Point.  Here is the view from the viewpoint looking back the Painted Desert Inn:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Here is the view looking north from Kachina Point:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Here is the view looking to the northeast:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Here is the view towards the east:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

After checking out the Painted Desert Inn we continued to drive around the loop road on the north side of the park and stop at various viewpoints to see more of the park:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

On the west of the loop road the views were not as spectacular due to the distance between the lookouts and the colorful buttes down below.  There was a large dry river bed that could be seen down below though:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

I am sure this dry river bed becomes a raging river at times during the rainy seasons:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Taking in the views really gave me the itch to explore this area more in the future.  For day hikes into the park’s wilderness area no permits are needed however for overnight hikes permits are needed from the National Park Service.  I am definitely going to try and explore the Painted Desert more in the future:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

After checking out all the viewpoints we then proceeded to drive south towards the southern part of the park where the Petrified Forest is located.  Before crossing over I-40 I noticed that the Park Service put up a small memorial to the historic Route 66 that once ran through the park:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Route 66 once connected Chicago with Los Angeles and became known as the “Main Street of America”:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Today most of Route 66 is long gone since it was replaced by the nearby I-40, but some sections of the original road still exist and can be driven on today.  At the Petrified Forest National Park the telephone poles that followed the original road are still visible along with this rusted old car:

Picture from the Painted Desert, Arizona

Conclusion

Overall the Painted Desert ended up being far more than what I expected.  It really is an unusually beautiful desert location.  Since I had my young kids with me and I was on a schedule I did not have time budgeted to hike within the desert.  After visiting the Painted Desert it really does appear this would be an awesome place to do an overnight backpacking hike at.  Even without doing any hiking this is still an awesome National Park to checkout.  The views from the various lookouts around the park are well worth the time to stop off of I-40 and check out for yourself.  You may find that this park is a whole lot more than you expected as well.

Next Posting: Puerco Pueblo, Arizona

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