Stories

Backpacking in the Painted Desert of Petrified Forest National Park

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In late November Alex and I took a road trip from Tucson to Las Vegas, stopping at all of Arizona's national parks on the way. Our second stop was at Petrified Forest National Park where we planned to spend a night in the Painted Desert. The park doesn't have any trails in its backcountry nor does it have designated campsites so we knew we were in for quite the adventure! 


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.

We picked up our backcountry permit from the Visitor Center and then headed to the starting point of our hike: The Painted Desert Inn. We set off on the trail to the left of the inn and immediately lost elevation until we were level with the wash. From here the real adventure began. We quickly lost anything that remotely resembled a trail, left behind all of the day-hikers, and found ourselves quite alone in the desert.

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Since the park has no backcountry trail system this trip took a little more planning and required a little more caution than any of our previous backcountry trips. I found this trip report on Backpacker and Alex and I planned on following the route to a T. I downloaded the ViewRanger app which makes following a pre-loaded route incredibly easy but once Alex and I headed out on the Lithodendron Wash we stopped often to explore unique formations and any spot that caught our attention. It wasn't long until we were far behind schedule and it was evident we weren't going to make it to the predetermined campsite before dark. Instead, we scrapped following the pre-loaded route and began following our own, while still making sure  we were oriented and aware of our location in reference to our starting point. The park service also requires campers to camp at least one mile away from roads, so as we wandered the Painted Desert we were mindful to stay well in the backcountry and away from civilization. This wasn't difficult since that was the whole point of our hike! 

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Being free to explore the backcountry was an incredibly unique experience. It was such a treat to see something interesting in the distance and then simply walk over and explore it. We spent most of the afternoon meandering past mesas and stopping often to appreciate our surroundings until finally we decided to start scoping out a camp spot. We always stayed in view of the Painted Desert Inn so we weren't worried about getting lost but when it came to picking out a campsite we wanted to be a little more discreet. We found the perfect spot at the base of a mesa that felt relatively sheltered.  

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After we set up camp we waited for sunset, hoping it would be a fiery one. Unfortunately, there were no clouds in the sky and the sunset was lackluster. We retired for the night and hoped for a better sunrise. 

During the day the temperature hovered in the 70's, and in the sun it felt downright hot, but the moment the sun dipped below the horizon the temperature plummeted (overnight it dipped to the mid-20's). I stayed warm in my cozy 0 degree sleeping bag but the moment our alarm went off for sunrise I realized how cold the air was. All I wanted to do was to stay nestled in my sleeping bag until well after the sun rose to warm us. However, we peeked out of the tent to see if there was any color in the sky and my jaw dropped. The sky was on fire! The freezing temperature was suddenly the furthest thing from my mind and I leapt from the tent while shoving my feet into my boots and fumbling with my camera settings.

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If you are interested After the sun rose we began to pack up camp. We wanted to get an early start because we had a long drive to the Grand Canyon ahead of us and we hoped to make a few stops along the way. Our hike back to the car was much less circuitous and we were able to make it back in about an hour. We began our drive north ahead of schedule!


If you are interested in completing this trip, check out my Adventure Guide HERE!