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Arizona's Painted Desert

Updated on June 30, 2015

Barren Badlands

Arizona’s Painted Desert is a stretch of barren badlands about 26 miles east of Holbrook on Interstate 40. Barren and austere perhaps, but it’s panorama of rainbow colors will take your breath away.

As a young lad, my siblings and I traveled extensively across the United States and the Painted Desert is one attraction we visited more than once. Dad was a career Air Force man and was ordered to different duty stations quite frequently. It provided us with ample opportunities to see the world. He continually advocated travel was an education in itself. He was right.

Our little, white, subcompact, Plymouth Valiant station wagon, never failed to draw stares from other travelers. The sight of eight people and a dog packed into it, loaded top to bottom with most of our belongings, must have been comical.

Painted Desert

The Painted Desert covers over 160 miles and encompasses about 93,500 acres. It is located about 30 miles north of Cameron, AZ along the southeastern rim of the Grand Canyon and is also close by the Petrified Forest. Of course, Dad made sure we saw them as well.

The first time we traveled along Interstate 40 on one of our numerous trips cross country we saw signs pointing the way to the Painted Desert. Naturally, our inquisitive natures kicked in and we asked Dad what it was. He was always one to try to get a laugh at our expense. He replied we were headed there anyway and we would see for ourselves. He also added the government hadn’t finished painting it yet and had offered to have us help complete it. His attempt at levity went over like a lead balloon.

We Arrived

We finally arrived and dad drug out the cameras. He was a photo buff and somewhere in our attic there are a gazillion photographs of us at various places around the planet. He began snapping pictures of us with the spectacular arrays of colored sand and buttes filling the background.

The multitude of vibrant colors is where the Painted Desert derives its’ name. The colors range from lavenders to various shades of grey, red, orange and pink.

When we toured the visitor center we learned how the Painted Desert was created. Large displays explained how it took millions of years for it to be formed. Volcanoes, earthquakes and shifting tectonic plates took a part in its creation. Fresh and sea waters also played a part depositing layers of clay and sandstone.

According to the displays ancient Indian tribes also once inhabited the area. But in more modern times its’ existence was unknown until around 1600 when Spanish explorers stumbled across it. Since then, ranchers, tourists and military personnel have been common visitors. Along with them came looting of petrified wood in the nearby Petrified Forest. Thus the government established National Heritage Areas to promote conservation and educational aspects of the area.

We traveled many times along Interstate 40 over the years and there are many other attractions dad made sure we saw. The Meteor Crater, Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Fort Apache where the popular TV series “F Troop” was made are just a few.


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      teamrns 2 years ago

      Sure, the Grand Canyon isi BEAUTIFUL and there are tales abundant about it and the river running through it. A sight to behold. BUT, there are other other attractions in AZ worth seeing, like the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. All so simple, BUT such natural occurrences of nature. I so much agree with you.