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Backpack the Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona



9.55 miles

Elevation Gain

804 ft

Route Type



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. 

The GPX shows a less than 10-mile loop that you can do to see more of the area, but it can be a much shorter 2-mile out-and-back if you prefer. 

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.  

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