Exploring An Artists Palette – The Painted Desert, AZ
When I was in my teenage school years I loved two things most of all, Art and Science. For a while when I was deciding what to study (I went thro’ the English school system of O and A levels where you specialize at a very young age) I struggled with which way to go, but the boy-thing made the final decision for me. There were waaay more boys in Science which, at the raging hormonal age of 15 looked waaay more interesting. Way. There’d be zero competition and besides, I wanted to kick all their butts. Double way. So I became a scientist and career-wise (and boy-wise) I certainly can’t deny it served me well.
But Art was always on my mind, and one of the first things I did when I left my traditional working life was to plunge myself body and soul into the mostly unused right-side of my brain. I started a photography business and club, became a founding member of a theater company, and when we switched our lives and started RVing I started writing & shooting landscape. Since that time my inspiration has been natures palette, and I admit she’s been a most excellent teacher.
But just like school, some teachers are waaay more impactful than others.
Every now and then you see something in nature that speaks directly to the artist in you (‘coz we ALL carry an artist inside us) in the same way that transcendental meditation spoke to the Gurus of the early 70’s. It’s a thing so apparently unnatural that you wonder if it really exists. A thing my left-side Science brain can only barely comprehend, but my right-side Art brain embraces with wild gusto. The Painted Desert in Eastern Arizona, my dear blog readers, is one of those things.
To set the scene imagine yourself in a landscape of domes towering 300 feet into the sky. The mountains look as if they’ve been splashed by a mad painter with wild bands of purples, reds, pinks and blues swirling like giant candy canes around their base. It’s a landscape that seems created from pure imagination, with colors that rightly shouldn’t exist in the wild, palettes that shouldn’t be real. If you weren’t awake you’d think you’d landed in a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale.
I’d be wanting to visit the Painted Desert ever since we saw their “sister”, the amazing John Day Fossil Beds Painted Hills in Oregon in 2014. The latter are astonishing hills, intimate and stunning and an absolute bucket-list item for anyone traveling thro’ that area. The Arizona ones are admitedly a little different mostly due to their size. They are vast spanning over 160 miles across the high desert from Cameron to Holbrook, AZ. But what the two places share in common is that they are both wildly remote, almost entirely un-visited, aaaaasnd (here’s the absolute kicker) they’re both dog-friendly (whoooo hooooo!). Yes, you heard me right, folks. The Arizona Painted Desert is a National Park and it’s completely dog-friendly, which (as anyone who travels with a doggie knows) is a very, very rare thing. Coming here is like taking a trip to the Louvre, as the only tourist with your best furry friend beside you. It seems incredible that this place isn’t over-run.
Part of the the reason for the light visitation may well be the name.
This place is formally called “Petrified Forest National Park” which doesn’t really invoke much of an artists draw. If you’ve ever seen Petrified Wood, you’ll understand what I mean. It’s basically wood that’s been crystallized over many millions of years into stone. It’s scientifically cool & pretty in its own way (up-close it’s a rainbow of colorful quartz), but it’s not anything like a “forest” and it’s not overly captivating in a grander sense. From afar it just looks like piles of wood pieces on the desert floor. Ho Hum…
What they should have called this place is “The Stunning Painted Desert…with a side-sprinkling of Petrified Wood” because that’s really what you get here. The painted hills are the STAR of the show IMHO, the thing that will sweep you away and leave your mouth permanently agape in wonder, while the petrified wood is a nice…ermmm…bonus. These guys need some marketing savvy, by Zeus!
Geologically the mountains are made up of the Chinle Formation which was deposited ~200-230 million years ago during the Late Triassic Period. Scientifically the bands of amazing color are actually mineral-rich (iron, manganese etc.) layers of history, and each one represents a different period of deposits. Artistically they constantly switch color from brilliant hues, to pastels and even dreary browns depending on time of day and the angle of the sun. Up-close the delicate silt and mustone look like crumbles of painted popcorn. From far away….they look like a dreamy painting.
We arrived late afternoon, and visited the park twice -> once for sunset near the Visitors Center, and once the next day for an early morning drive through the whole park. The red mounds in the north of the park were stunning, but the painted wonder of Blue Mesa was the absolu-frikkin-lutely highlight. We went early AM while the colors were at their brightest (they fade to moderate browns and tans as the sun goes higher in the sky) and hiked the easy ~1-mile paved hike with doggie with absolutely no-one else around. What an experience!! Other cool stops were the Puerco Pueblo and a quick look at the Crystal Forest Petrified Wood area. We easily managed ALL the stops and hiked most of the short trails in one long morning, but if we’d had another day I would have taken a longer hike into the Wilderness Area in the north area of the park.
The Painted Hills were yet another inspiration for my artists brain and yet another bucket list item completed. Who says an old dog can’t learn new things? Way!
NOTE/ ALL trails in the park are on-leash dog-friendly (no dogs allowed in buildings). The park opens at ~7AM and closes at 6PM (in summer). It is gated the rest of the time, so you can’t physically get in outside of these times. Go EARLY or LATE for best colors & coolest weather. Park entry costs $20, or it’s free with a National Parks Pass.
- Painted Desert/Petrified Forest Main Page -> Click HERE.
- Painted Desert/Petrified Forest Trail Info -> Click HERE. ALL trails are dog-friendly!
- Painted Desert/Petrified Forest MAP -> Click HERE.
- Painted Desert Overview (from arizona-leisure.com) -> Click HERE.
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Jil Mohr says
Great and thourough as usual… I went as a teenager, now they would have a better impact on me thanks to your stunning photos
Absolutely Beautiful pics and post. We have been following your posts for about 2 years. Love your words and pictures. Makes me feel like I’m there. We’re headed out Saturday towards the southwest for the winter from the Adirondacks in NY. Our first time camping in that part of our country. Very excited. Thank you for all of your information. We will be checking out some of your boondocking spots!
Well HAVE FUN on your trip southwest!! You know how much we love it here, so hopefully you will too.
Great post! Not only are the pictures terrific, I liked your link to the different geological layers. Wheel on!
Thank you for the lovely compliment 🙂
Jerry Ericsson says
Hi, love your posts, thanks so much, we look forward to traveling down that way very soon, most things are ready to go. You missed the best petrified wood display though, it is in Lemmon SD, my home town, a couple of blocks of the stuff built into castles towers and such, wonderful display built by one man, using the labor of prisoners from the City Jail. I grew up playing on the park displays, guess they don’t let the kids climb them any more, but man it was fun when we were young. Next time you get up this way, take a detour to Lemmon, it’s well worth the trip. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g54682-d2232970-Reviews-Petrified_Wood_Park-Lemmon_South_Dakota.html#photos
Interesting spot. I’ll have to add it to the list for the future.
Cathy Wright says
Fantastic pics! I was there ~ 33 yrs ago as a nursing student for 3 mos on the Navajo-Hopi Reservations; then went back with my husband 7 yrs ago for our 20th. Still just as gorgeous, other-worldly, and serene.
What an amazing history you’ve had with this area! Thanks to the preservation of the park I’m sure the hills look just as lovely as you remember them from your day. The beauty here is enduring.
So pretty. I went there a long long time ago and I don’t remember all that beauty. Different time in my life. I’m missing the desert this year, so sad about that. Love the photos.
This is our very first time here. The Oregon Hills definitely gave us the inspiration to see more.
Great write-up and photos, as always, Nina! The Painted Desert is one of our favorite places in all of our travels, as we’ve traversed Route 66.
Krash went there with friends when he was a late-teen, and they spent Easter morning just sitting there, mesmerized. He says it’s probably the most spiritual Easter he’s ever experienced.
So, after hearing about it for years, and not being too excited about going to a ‘desert’, imagine my surprise! Just simply jaw-droppingly, stunningly beautiful and constantly changing! And as luck would have it, we also got to watch a cool thunderstorm move in over that beautiful landscape (in the safe confines of the visitor’s center), with the sun still trying to hang on. And we, too, had the place practically to ourselves! We can’t wait to get back to Route 66 and the Painted Desert again soon!
I’d LOVE to see a thunderstorm there. Must have been spectacular!! Sounds like you had very much the same kind of magical experience we did. Cheers for sharing your story of the place.
Ilse Beijen says
Oh, how I love your posts and photos. Just beautiful!! We visited the area many years ago. It makes me want to load up our R.V. and visit again.
Thank you for sharing.
Carol Andrews says
What wonderful photos you took. When we visited, I was really disappointed–mounds of muted colors. You made it come alive. We were there mid-day. The early and late light made all the difference.
You are so right. The colors of the hills change dramatically during the day, and right around noon everything looks muted brown. You only really get the “painted” colors early AM or late PM.
Pam Wright says
Nina, the colors are absolutely amazing! What fantastic photos! I love all the colors the chinle-bentonite formations has to offer. I am thinking we may be able to get this park in to our travels in the spring:) Love the photo of Paul and his dad:)
Hoping to cross paths at Sam’s in November:)
Spring would be a wonderful time to go. I wonder if they get wildflowers? That would be gorgeous!
Stunning photos! Your inner artist is most definitely fully expressing herself. 🙂 We love the Painted Desert, too — it’s amazing how sunset or sunrise brings the colors to life.
So very true…and I corrected the typo for ya 🙂
John Schexnaydre says
I always enjoy your writing and pictures. You do a bang up job of narration, great pictures and merging the two together. Thanks for sharing.
I also went to The Painted Desert a few months back. Here are my pictures:
Lovely set of shots! I see you put some HDR in there too (in some of them). Turned out nice.
Your blog is my favorite…love your style of writing, helpful & useful hints, campground reviews! You have touched my soul. We are in the planning stages of our FT adventure starting next year and hope to write a blog about our travels.
Yours is very easy to navigate, I love how you can look at different topics without reading each post, although I’ve ended up reading each one because I enjoyed them so much! Did you create your with WordPress? Was it difficult? Any tips?
Yup, I created my blog on WordPress and it was SUPER easy. For the first 2-3 years of my blog I relied on the FREE wordpress.com platform. Just sign in, think of a blog name and you’ll be blogging in ~5 minutes. It’s literally idiot-proof and I highly recommend it as a way to stay blogging without any kind of stress at all.
After 2-3 years my blog got too big and I moved it onto an external server. I’m still using WordPress, but I’m self-hosting now. It’s not difficult, but it IS more complicated than the free platform.
I’ve got a more extensive post on blogging here:
Jeff T. says
I see you are at the Grand Canyon. We were there a couple of Springs ago. Took the Park Bus thru the canyon but were n it mid-day. NOT a good time for the inner Artist to express itself. Have not been to the Painted Desert but is now on the list. For me Brice Canyon and Zion do it. I get there and loose all control, the inner artist takes over and doesn’t want to do anything but shoot and shoot and shoot. If it was the old Kodachrome days, I couldn’t afford to travel!!
Totally agree on the artists colors in Grand Canyon. They’re definitely best in the first 1-2 hours after sunrise, or the last 1-2 hours before sunset. Things get very muted (and kind of hazy) in-between. It’s actually really challenging to photograph here!
Gary Holmes says
Thought this Craft Beer story about San Diego might interest you guys:
Rick Morgan says
Ha! Looks familiar…. we passed through here just a couple of days ahead of you. Really enjoyed your post and the pictures.
You guys seem to have been just a few days (or a few miles) ahead of us for weeks now! Maybe we’ll actually cross paths again at some point.
After following your post to John Day, and being wowed by just a third of the park and the incredible colors we saw there, this spot definitely is on the list – maybe we can get there this winter 🙂 It really does touch that artist in me, envisioning a broad stroke here, and a swish of something different around the corner. Your photos capture such beauty. Love the pic of P, P & Dad!
Devil’s Post Pile is a National Monument and is dog-friendly as well – we were so excited to see that a few days ago!
Oh yeah, Devils Postpile. Such an awesome place! National Monuments are (generally) more dog-friendly than National Parks, but they can still be hit & miss. I’m glad you got to see it w/ your furry friend.
I really don’t take the time to comment on any websites regardless of good or bad. But I have to say I love your blog and you provide so so so much helpful information. Just found it couple days ago and now almost done reading all your adventures. Since you don’t have a donate in your blog, I might be going to Paul’s site to donate because I feel like I learned so much.
I too am in San Diego, live in Carmel Valley. What part of SD are you from? I am now researching ahead of time and will buy a 33-36′ diesel coach and will be follow your trails. Thanks to you, I can now visit only the good areas that you reviewed.
I read and follow a lot of the full time RVer’s blogs but your information is so detailed. Another questions do you take the beast with you into the National Forest such as Petrified Forest or do you leave it parked and just take the CRV ? Sometimes the road into National Parks are so hard to drive a coach.
I agree….this is the best blog I follow!
Before we started RVing we lived near the Del Mar area. Only for just over a year tho’ since we just moved there from Hong Kong the year before, and went RVing right after.
As for sightseeing we always do it in the CRV. It’s just so much easier and we can go everywhere we want without worrying if there’s enough space to park “the beast”. We will sometimes (very rarely) stop with the rig while we’re traveling from point-to-point if there’s something interesting to see along the way, but 99% of the time we prefer to park “the beast” and sightsee in the CRV.
Never get third of seeing places like this. We were there last Spring, and also a few years back. We will possibly be stopping for another day on our way South, West in a few days. We are right behind you.
I can see us stopping here again whenever we pass thro on I-40. The changing colors are just so much fun to photograph.
Where did you guys camp near the painted desert? Any boondocking nearby that you know of? AllStays mentions Crystal Forest Gift Shop Campground which seems to be free if you use no electricity. Did you stay there?
We stayed at Root 66 which is a Passport America campground at the north entrance. But the Crystal Forest Gift Store at the South Entrance is a good option too. NO other boondocking that I know of.
You can see my review of the campground here:
JB Opheim says
Awesome photos as usual. My Wife and I are getting excited to start our adventure in about 10 months. 35 years in the military and time to hang up the boots and get in a little R&R. We bought a used low mileage 38 ft. MH a couple years back and going to give the life on the road a shot. We are particularly interested in boondocking because we also have 3 fur kids and like peace and quiet. I have been following your blog for about 3 years, we knew we were going to do something similar. Have a great winter and stay safe.
John and Jenny
We visited in 2008, your photos are far better than anything I took back then though… thanks for a nice trip down memory lane! 🙂
We were blown away by both sunrise and sunset at the Painted Desert. Both your right and left brain are working beautifully Nina. 🙂