Try to imagine a place in the Southwest where the desert looks as if an artist painted the desolate landscape with bright pastel colors as far as the eyes can see. The Painted Desert is one such place! This colorful wilderness area covers a vast expanse of land in central Arizona. There are many good places to view the Painted Desert and few are better than the overlooks in the Petrified Forest National Park!
There are two entrance gates at the Petrified Forest National Park. The back entrance can be found a few miles southeast of Holbrook, Arizona on U.S. Highway 180. This entrance lands right in the thick of the Rainbow Forest, which is where most of the petrified logs are located. Alternately, the main access point is located on Interstate Highway 40 (Route 66) just east of Holbrook. When entering the Petrified Forest National Park from I-40, the grand tour of the Painted Desert begins!
The Painted Desert is one of the most interesting geological features on earth and the story of how this unique landscape was created is complex. A combination of many geological forces and environmental factors over a period of millions of years acts as paint on an artist’s palette. Layers of multi color ancient ocean bottom sandstone and petrified sand dunes make up the bulk of the landscape. Erosive environmental forces have exposed the bright colors of the rock strata and explosive volcanic activity also painted this region with layers of blue, gray and black. In contrast, the volcanic ash drapes this landscape with pale gray, bright white and light tan shades.
Layers of mineralization from forests and swamps that were present during the age of the dinosaurs also adds a wide range of glistening earth tones to the Painted Desert color scheme. Oxidized iron pigments paint this vast expanse with pink, red and orange highlights. Desert Varnish dots the surface rocks with deep brown and black colors. The sparse vegetation contributes patches of familiar green tones with straw yellow in the mix. Each colorful application has a story to tell and a lot can be learned while pondering over the views of this majestic place.
The Painted Desert most definitely is a landscape artist’s dream come true. Many great western artists have spent plenty of time at this place with a brush and palette in hand. The Painted Desert is also a photographer’s paradise as well. The time of day and time of year can have a dramatic effect on the captured images. Early morning views reveal a sparkling fresh color effect, while the blinding midday sun bleaches this inhospitable arena. Sunsets enhance the dramatic effect of light and shadow, while painting the blue skies with fiery colors. The summer monsoon rain season dampens the earth and the deep vivid colors are revealed. As can be imagined, no two visits to the Petrified Forest National Park Painted Desert will yield the same views and capturing a timeless moment in this place is what artists do best.
There are many scenic viewpoints along the two lane paved road that runs through the Petrified Forest National Park. Each roadside scenic overlook is strategically placed to offer views of noteworthy features of the landscape. There are many hiking trails along the road to explore, especially toward the Blue Mesa area. The extreme heat is a limiting factor for hikes during the long summer, so plan on packing extra water for every trek. The winter months offer cool relief and smaller crowds, which adds up to a better overall experience.
As the seasons change, so does the wildlife in this region. During the cold winter months the reptiles are rarely seen. When warm air returns in spring, the insects, lizards and snakes all come out of hiding. Mule Deer and Bighorn Sheep have been known to frequent this area and an occasional Jackrabbit can be seen hiding behind sage brush. Ravens, hawks and vultures soar high above by day, while bats and owls can be seen after dark.
There are many unique points of interest along the road that goes through the Painted Desert section of the Petrified Forest National Park. Near the entrance gate by I-40, the Painted Desert Visitors Center and the old historic Painted Desert Inn can be found. A visitor will see many scenic overlooks along the road before arriving at the Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock, which only require a short hike to access. The majestic Blue Mesa is in this section too. Wildlife viewing areas are highlighted along the road and some of the best views of petrified logs in a badlands setting can be seen near Blue Mesa.
A wealth of information about the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest is provided by the rangers at the entrance gate. The park brochure includes trail maps and roadside points of interest. The National Park brochure is the only reliable information resource, because cellular communications are limited or nonexistent in this region. Scheduled guided tours of the Petrified Forest National Park are also available and inquiries should be made ahead of time. There are also star gazing events, Navajo guided cultural tours and organized nature walks, so visitors of all ages will find plenty of interesting things to do.
The Petrified Forest National Park has always been a Route 66 attraction, so those who plan to tour the historic Mother Road should chalk this destination high on their bucket list! The Painted Desert landscape has been waiting millions of years to be experienced and the majestic views certainly will create memories that last a lifetime.
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