The Painted Desert encompasses over 93,500 acres and stretches over 160 miles. It begins about 30 miles north of Cameron near the southeastern rim of the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest about 26 miles east of Holbrook. The Painted Desert is a desert of badlands in the Four Corners area. Much of the Painted Desert region is within the Navajo Nation.
The Painted Desert is composed of stratified layers of easily erodible siltstone, mudstone, and shale of the Triassic Chinle Formation. These fine-grained rock layers contain abundant iron and manganese compounds, which provide the pigments for the various colors of the region. Thin resistant lacustrine limestone layers and volcanic flows cap the mesas.
It took millions upon millions of years for nature to create this natural canvas of unimaginable design that some describe as a multi-colored layered cake. The Painted Desert draws upon the earth’s indecisive nature. From shifts in the earth’s crust brought about by temperamental volcanoes and earthquakes to complete inundation by fresh and seawaters alike, a veritable host of elements have breathed life into this area. Colorful sediments of bentonite clay and sandstone, stacked in elegant layers, feed off the setting Arizona sun in an ever-changing display of colorful splendor.
In the southern portions of the Painted Desert the remains of a Triassic period coniferous forest have fossilized over millions of years. Wind, water and soil erosion continue to change the face of the landscape by shifting sediment and exposing layers of the Chinle Formation. An assortment of fossilized prehistoric plants and animals are found in the region, as well as dinosaur tracks and the evidence of early human habitation.
The most visited area of the Painted Desert is its eastern end about 115 miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona. Both the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest are about 26 miles east of Holbrook on Interstate 40 where you will find the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center. The western-end of the Painted Desert can be accessed north on US 89 from Flagstaff AZ. Drive north past Cameron, into Tuba City. You could spend several hours along either of these routes enjoying the views.
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