Painted Desert Unit: Cross-Country Travel, Painted Desert Inn at Kachina Point, Petrified Forest National Park - Painted Desert, Arizona

Painted Desert Unit: Cross-Country Travel - 1.0 miles

Painted Desert Inn at Kachina Point

The Painted Desert Wilderness Unit offers unlimited exploration of the open desert

The Painted Desert Wilderness Unit offers unlimited exploration of the open desert

Round-Trip Length: 1.0 miles (minimum roundtrip distance between trailhead and desert floor)
Start-End Elevation: 5,849' - 5,547'
Elevation Change: -302' net elevation loss (to end of maintained trail)
Skill Level: Moderate
Dogs Allowed: No
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: Yes
Related Trails:

Painted Desert Unit: Cross-Country Travel - 1.0 Miles Round-Trip

With so few miles of maintained trail in the Park, many visitors head into the Painted Desert Wilderness Area to improvise their own adventure through colorful badlands, vast prairies and lengthy washes. A short trail leads to the desert floor, where you may begin exploring this complex and imaginative landscape.

Despite relatively mild terrain, backcountry travel can be challenging. Practiced navigation skills and thoughtful preparation are essential for any trip in the desert wilderness.

The Painted Desert Unit has no reliable water sources - you'll need to carry all of your own. Layers and sun protection are a must, no matter the season. Storms can develop quickly, and there's little refuge when they do.

Do not rely on boot tracks to guide you, as many simply fade or go nowhere in particular. Thin dry air may obscure distances, while deep sand, unstable rock and thick scrub can slow travel.

Badland formations are generally unstable and may crumble or collapse with little warning. Heavy overnight packs may compound challenges over such terrain. Avoid climbing badlands after rainstorms. Consult a Park Ranger about terrain, navigation variables, weather conditions and necessary outfitting and skills before venturing out:

Once on the desert floor, let the landscape and most interesting topographical features guide your path. Many visitors head north for a short trip into the Black Forest area - one of the Painted Desert Unit's highest concentrations of petrified wood remains.

Backpackers must hike north of Lithodendron Wash (1 mile from the access trailhead) before setting up camp. A good topographical map will help you identify this feature. 

More ambitious destinations include Pilot Rock (6,235') to the northwest and Chinde Mesa (6,004') directly north. Both tower above the desert floor and are good navigational reference points. The base of each is at least 6 miles (one way) from the end of the access trail, though terrain variables and route choices can add significant distance.

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • N35 05.020 W109 47.350 — Painted Desert Inn Trailhead (5,849')
  • N35 05.268 W109 47.281 — End of maintained trail on desert floor (5,586')
  • N35 05.475 W109 47.402 — Follow informal path into Painted Desert (5,547')

Worth Noting

  • Pilot Rock - at 6,235' - is the highest point in the Park.
  • Shortgrass prairies and small pockets of high desert ecosystems cover a majority of the Park. The Park is technically classified as an Intermountain Basin, Semi-Desert Shrub Steppe and Grassland.
  • The colorful badlands, mesas and buttes of the Painted Desert were carved from the Chinle Formation - a mass of sedimentary rocks laid down during the mid - late Triassic Period, 200 - 230 million years ago.
  • Sedimentary layers of the Chinle Formation - revealed by millions of years of erosion - include the Blue Mesa Member, Sonsela Member, Petrified Forest Member, and Owl Rock Member.
  • The Sonsela and Owl Rock Members are the most prevalent Chinle Formation sedimentary members in the Painted Desert Unit.
  • Color bands are the combined result of mineral presence and water levels at the time of sedimentary deposition.

Camping and Backpacking Information

Backcountry Camping is permitted within designated Wilderness Areas. A free backcountry permit is available from one of the visitor centers during operating hours. Permits may only be obtained in-person, 1 hour before Park closing.

Backpackers must be at least 1 mile from maintained trails, roads and developed areas.

  • Avoid stepping on plant life; travel in washes for minimal impact whenever possible.
  • No wood or charcoal fires are permitted anywhere in the Park.
  • Pack-out all that you bring in. Bury human waste.
  • Backpackers must hike north of Lithodendron Wash (1 mile from the access trailhead) before setting up camp. A good topographical map will help you identify this landscape feature.

Rules and Regulations

  • Collection of plants, rocks, petrified wood, fossils, archeological objects or other materials is illegal anywhere in the park. Rules are strictly enforced and violators are subject to significant penalties.

  • Horses are permitted in designated wilderness areas.

Directions to Trailhead

The Painted Desert Unit Access Trail is located 2 miles from the north entrance station on Park Road at the Painted Desert Inn (at Kachina Point). The trailhead is located on the west side of the Inn.

Contact Information

Petrified Forest National Park
1 Park Road
P.O. Box 2217
Petrified Forest, AZ 86028
928.524.6228 (phone)
928 524.3567 (fax)

Trip Reports

There are no trip reports on this trail.


"The over looks are nice but to hike this is a way to see the painted desert close up... The way down to the base is easy to a bit rockie and un even...needless to say the 300 foot climb out can be a workout...anyway my wife and I have done this hike more than a few times and its well worth the effort... c"
 -   -  Date Posted: November 21, 2012


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