The Painted Desert - Arizona
Updated: Aug 23
Sounds like a magical place doesn't it? In Arizona, the sixth largest state in the United States (in terms of area), there are three National Parks: Grand Canyon National Park, Saguaro National Park and Petrified Forest National Park. Each has its own unique characteristics and one of a kind features to offer. The Badlands, however, are not confined to South Dakota alone; they can be found in the Southwest as well. In Arizona, the colorful Badland hills are scattered across the Painted Desert. The Chinle Formation, deposited here over 200 million years ago (during the Late Triassic Period), is mainly of fluvial origin which are river-related deposits.
The Painted Desert encompasses over 93,500 acres and stretches over 160 miles. Located in Northeast Arizona, near the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, it includes the Petrified Forest. The park is 95 miles east of Flagstaff and 55 miles from the New Mexico border, along Interstate 40/Route 66. Entrance to the Park is about 25 miles east of Holbrook, Arizona, a town steeped with a history of outlaws, railroaders and cattlemen, and Hispanic and Native American culture.
How was the Painted Desert named? As the story goes, in 1540, a Spanish explorer, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, who was trying to find routes between their colonies along the Rio Grande and the Pacific Coast, named the region El Desierto Pintado, meaning “The Painted Desert”. It was a perfect name. Standing looking at the incredible landscapes here is like looking at a canvas.
The park has two geological formations - the Late Triassic Chinle Formation and the Mio-Pliocene Bidahochi Formation. Ancient environments are represented by these layers. The fossils that are found here help scientists reconstruct those ancient environments.
The landscape, created by erosion, has a multitude of colors, ranging from lavenders to shades of gray with vibrant colors of red, orange and pink. It's like a magnificent rainbow of colors unique only in the area. It took millions of years for nature to create this natural landscape, sculpting and molding the land throughout the park.
The area's unusual colorful landscape is composed of bentonite clay (a product of altered volcanic ash), and sandstone. Wind, which blows most of the time here, played a big role in shaping the terrain, since the meager amount of rainfall (annually only about 10 inches) has little effect on altering the shape of the land because it falls in small amounts at a time and doesn't run off all that much.
PAINTED DESERT INN
Before heading to the Petrified Forest, we stopped at the Painted Desert Inn, located at Kachina Point, two miles from the north entrance. This building became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Back in the days, from the early 1920's, this inn served as a rest and stop point for people traveling along Route 66. Today, it serves as a museum with displays of the Inn's history, the historic Route 66 and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). Also inside are restored murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.
The Inn today is of Pueblo Revival Style (stuccoed masonry, thick walls, earth tones, flat roofs, and projecting roof beams or vigas), but the original building was made of petrified wood and other native stone. It was built by Herbert David Lore, a homesteader. He called it "Stone Tree House" and operated it as a tourist attraction. It had a lunch room where visitor's could eat, a taproom to quench the thirst, an area to buy American Indian arts and crafts, and six small double rooms to stay the night.
Unfortunately, the original Inn did not last due to its location. The structure sits on bentonite clay which causes swells and shrinkage due to changes in moisture. The foundation shifted, and cracks and water damage appeared in the walls. Lore sold his property to the Petrified Forest National Monument in 1936, in order to preserve it. The park service demolished it eventually.
The National Park service architect Lyle Bennett (considered a master of the Pueblo Revival Style) redesigned the Inn, copying the Puebloan and Spanish Colonial cultures, a popular style in the 1930's.
The new inn was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (who also built roads, trails and bridges in many national parks during the depression). They also hand-painted the skylight panels with images of prehistoric pottery, and etched and painted the concrete floors with Navajo blanket designs. The inn re-opened in 1940 but was closed again in October 1942 because of World War II.
The Inn was reopened five years later under new ownership. The Fred Harvey Company, which is tied to the Southwest railroad and tourism, made renovations and repairs with the help of the company's architect and interior designer, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. New plate glass windows were installed to take advantage of the view, and renowned Hopi artist, Fred Kabotie was hired. Colter was also responsible for hiring young women who became known as the "Harvey Girls of the Painted Desert Inn" to serve customers.
Among the park’s archaeological features are Petroglyphs (e.g., Newspaper Rock) and the ruins of ancient Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi), notably the Puerco Indian Ruin just south of the Painted Desert.
The park has limited dining and retail facilities but no lodging or developed campgrounds, though there are back-country camping sites designated in the wilderness areas. Early or late in the day (depending on park hours) are said to be the most spectacular times to visit the Painted Desert.
At the edge of Painted Desert is the Wupatki National Monument, a collection of ruins of dwellings built by the Anasazi and Sinagua Indians during the 12th and 13th centuries.
NEXT... PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK