The Painted Desert should be on everyone’s bucket list

The Painted Desert is one of nature’s most beautiful natural wonders and you need to go.

Whether you live on the west side of the country or are planning to go west from the eastern U.S., the Painted Desert needs to be on your itinerary.

Located in Arizona and throughout the Four Corners area where four states, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah all come together at one point. There is a lot to do in this region so one trip can cover it all in a couple of days, if you really want to take your time, and take it all in.

Most of the Painted Desert lies on Navaho Nation land and in order to get access,  you need a permit. You can gain access to the PD by other means but you probably want to go all-in if you are going “all-out” to get there.

So what is the Painted Desert? Well, they are mountainous rock formations that have been weathered over time by wind and rain and carved out over millions of years dating back some 60 million years. Through the course of time, the hills have taken on layers of color from deep reds to oranges that fade into browns giving it a painted look.

The name aptly comes from an expedition under Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Coronado was searching for the Lost City of Gold and the expedition trek took them through this land.

Only 40 miles away you will find the Petrified Forest. Another national park that is millions of years old. Here you will find the remnants and long ago trees that have turned to stone over time.

Arizona's Petrified Forest

circa 1960: A view of the petrified forests of Arizona. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Best time to go

The good news is that it is Arizona so any time of year is a great time to explore the rolling hills and surrounding deserts but the best time of day may be more important than the best time of year.

Off the Navajo Nation lands, motorized vehicle paths are very limited so you will need to hike wherever you want to get to. Inside the Navajo area there are more but still limited access to areas that you can “drive” to but again, the applications and permits may be hard to get at times depending on crowds. Highly recommended to plan ahead and try and get your permits long before you head out.

The best time of day is at dawn as the sun breaks over the horizon the mountains and hills glow in the early morning rise. With your back to the sun, you should be able to get incredible pictures wherever you are.

At dusk, the Painted Desert is no less breathtaking. In both cases, however, you will need be in the parks at with minimal light early or in the case of the evening, going down. If you are hiking to locations, this could be problematic and you may want to consider taking a guided tour instead of making it on your own. If you are a novice hiker, you definitely will want to stay on the more traveled paths or with a guide.

Next: Paradise on the edge of the United States

Either way, there are enough entry points both on the Navajo Nation land and through the U.S. Parks Service to get great views of the surrounding landscape.

Grand Falls

For many, especially those making the trip from the eastern U.S. this is once in a lifetime trip and as such you need to take in as much as you can. That brings us to Grand Falls where you can take in one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the entire world.

The cascading falls come from melting snow way up north that make their way down the Little Colorado River. The falls are located northwest of the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest on Navajo land but a permit is not required to view the falls and entry is free.

There are scattered “outhouses” but no facilities so take note. Further northwest you will reach the Grand Canyon so plan your trip to cover all of it and the best thing about the Grand Falls is that it is accessible by vehicle.

To make a reservation with the National Parks Service please visit the link. 

To make a reservation with the Navajo Nation, please visit this link.

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