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.