Painted Desert Trail, Arizona

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

by American Trails Staff

June 01, 2005

Hiking through the volcanic ash flows; photo by Sue McDonald

Featured
National Recreation Trail

Designated in 2005


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in the NRT Database

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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.