Backpack the Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park

Rate this Adventure 2 miles 400 ft gain  - Out-and-Back Trail

Added by Sonja Saxe

The backcountry of Petrified Forest National Park doesn't have trails nor designated campsites, allowing visitors to forge their own path and explore as much (or as little) as they feel comfortable while they walk past petrified wood that is 200 million years old.

The Painted Desert is sprawling, its reach extends from the Four Corners, west to the Grand Canyon and south to Petrified Forest National Park. In total it encompasses 7,500 square miles and is full of colorful mesas that are worthy of its name. In Petrified Forest National Park you can head out into the backcountry to explore this otherworldly desert landscape.

Your first order of business is to pick up a free backcountry permit at the Painted Desert Visitor Center in the northern section of the park. From there you will drive two miles to the Painted Desert Inn, the starting point of your hike. Once you're geared up and ready to head out for the night, descend the trail just to the left of the inn. You will quickly lose elevation until you are level with the wash. You can follow the faint trail out to the backcountry but soon you will leave any trace of a trail, and all day-hikers behind. This is where the real adventure begins!

The unique part of this trip is that you can explore as deep into the backcountry as you'd like or you can stay nearer to civilization if you don't feel comfortable off trail. The park service requires you to camp at least one mile from the road but since the Painted Desert Inn is situated high on a hill you can walk for quite a distance and still keep an eye on your starting point. 

One thing to keep in mind for this trip is that there is no reliable source of water in the backcountry so you will have to carry all of your water with you (the typical rule of thumb is to carry at least one gallon per person per day). It also gets quite cold at night in the desert so make sure that you have an appropriate sleeping bag and enough layers to stay warm.

Also, please don't take any petrified wood from the park. The amount of petrified wood in the park is shrinking each year because visitors steal pieces. This ruins the experience for future park-goers. The gift shops have pieces available for purchase if you want a keepsake! These pieces are found on private properties and the owners then sell them to the park service.  

Read More




Have you done this adventure? Be the first to leave a review!

Stay Nearby

Navajo County, Arizona

Lewis Canyon

Overview Lewis Canyon is a large single-group campsite located in the scenic White Mountains region of eastern Arizona. With several amenities and activities, including hiking and horseshoes, the f...

Apache County, Arizona

Caldwell Cabin

Overview Caldwell Cabin allows up to six visitors to step back in time to a more rustic and historical era in eastern Arizona. Originally constructed in the 1920s, it was a one-room homestead, but ...

Apache County, Arizona

Apache Trout Campground

Overview Apache Trout Campground is one of five campgrounds at the Big Lake Recreation Area in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and is especially popular for group camping. With boating and fishi...

Nearby Adventures

  • Hike the Blue Forest Trail in Petrified Forest NP

    Although short, the Blue Forest Trail is one of the most unexpectedly coolest hikes I've been on.  It's kind of strange to hike in what used to be a dense forest/swamp area that is now a barren desert full of petrified wood.Parking for this trail ...

    2.5 miles 200 ft gain

  • Walk the Blue Mesa Trail

    The easiest route is to drive from the southern entrance to the Petrified Forest National Park and head north toward the 3.5 mile Blue Mesa Scenic Drive.  The drive itself is nice and offers other hikes depending on what pullout you stop your car....

    1 miles

  • Drive the Blue Mesa Scenic Road in Petrified Forest National Park

    This is probably one of the most scenic drives in the Petrified Forest National Park.  From the main road, the loop is only three miles long.  There are many pullouts along the loop where you can get out of your vehicle to snap some photos.  You w...

    3 miles

  • Photograph the Agate Bridge

    For centuries the Agate Bridge, a 110 ft stone log, has laid across an arrow withstanding corrosion from the elements.  The stone log is harder than the surrounding sandstone that it's perched upon.  The sandstone is slowly eroding away around thi...