Painted Desert Trail, Arizona

This backcountry trail extends over a mile through Imperial National Wildlife Refuge.

Hiking through the volcanic ash flows; photo by Sue McDonald

Featured
National Recreation Trail

Designated in 2005


• View more details for this trail
in the NRT Database

• Learn about the NRT Program.

The Painted Desert Trail in the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge was developed by the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). Construction began in 1980 and the trail officially opened on November 4, 1983. The trail is 1.3 miles with trail markers interpreting the geologic and natural history of the area. It traverses two washes and climbs over a mesa with a picturesque view of the Lower Colorado River Valley and Sonoran Desert.

This trail was named for the multi-colored mounds of rock from ancient volcanos that erupted 20-30 million years ago. Colors are determined by the minerals present in each mound. For example, iron creates a rusty red color, while copper shows as green.

Home to unique desert plants and animals, the trail is a naturalist's paradise. Visitors enjoy the opportunity to observe beavertail cactus, desert bighorn sheep, and lizards amidst unusual rock formations.

An unusual rock formation catches hikers' eye. Created by water erosion, this formation is called a "hoodoo"; photo by Sue McDonald

An unusual rock formation catches hikers' eye. Created by water erosion, this formation is called a "hoodoo"; photo by Sue McDonald

The trail is maintained by Refuge volunteers and is used by a variety of visitors, from fourth grade school children on field trips to adventurous people enjoying a full moon hike.

The Painted Desert Trail is the only designated trail on the Refuge and provides visitors an opportunity to explore the Lower Colorado River Valley and Sonoran Desert.

As a National Wildlife Refuge, the trail fulfills four of the "big 6" compatible wildlife-dependent recreational activities, which are: wildlife observation, photography, environmental education, and interpretation.

Quotes from fourth grade students:

I saw a snake, butterflies, spiders, lizards, birds, and other stuff.

It was neat to see a gray lizard hide on a gray rock looking up at the sky.

More Articles in this Category

The Lion's Tale National Recreation Trail

The Lion's Tale is a National Recreation Trail that is specially designed to create a sensory experience for the visually impaired. Through a special mascot, Lop Ears the Mountain Lion, the trail tells a story using braille as well as other sensory methods.

From Gold Mines to Woodlands Trails

In this National Recreation Trail highlight from the Sarah Zigler Interpretive Trail in Oregon, find out the history of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association and how they get hundreds of kids out on the trail every year.

2019 NRT Photo Contest Winners Announced

The results are in! Here are our picks from the 275 photos submitted for the 2019 photo contest.

RTP Highlight: Magone Lake Mountain Bike Trail System

Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon is working to create a new bike trail system with the help of Recreational Trail Program (RTP) funds.