A night camping in the Painted Desert Wilderness

Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you!.

painted desert camping

On my cross-country road trip from Tennessee to Colorado, I overshot by destination and ended up in Arizona.  Since I was already there, I stopped to visit Petrified Forest National Park. Petrified Forest is a desert known for its fossilized wood.  This was a budget trip and I was trying to camp as much as possible to save money.  The park does not have a campground.  BUT one can get a backpacking permit for Painted Desert camping for free.

painted desert camping

The rules for the permit are simple.  I had to hike at least a mile from the Painted Desert in and be north of the Lithodendron Wash.  I could not collect plants, rocks, petrified wood, fossils, or archeological objects (This rule applies to the park at all times).  I could not have a camp fire.  I had to bury human waste and pack everything in that I packed out.  The park is divided into zones and permits are only issued for certain zones.

I drove up to the Petrified Forest from Saguaro National Park.  I had to make it to the Petrified Forest Visitor Center before it 5:00 pm to get my permit.  I had a late start out of Saguaro so I was pushing to make the 6 hour drive.  I didn’t have a Plan B if I didn’t make it.  I checked my watch as I pulled into the visitor center.  4:50 pm.  I made it.  I walked into the visitor center and hoped they hadn’t given out all the permits for the Black Forest Zone.

painted desert camping

With my permit secure, I drove up to the Painted Desert Inn.  I had about hour and a half before sunset. I didn’t have any time to waste if I didn’t want to make camp in the dark.  I packed my backpack with my overnight basics.

In my pack was:

  • 1-man tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Inflatable sleeping pad
  • Camp Stove and fuel
  • Food Bag
    • Can of Chicken Noodle Soup
    • Pack of Crackers
    • 4 Granola Bars
    • Matches
    • Pot and utensils
  • 3 L of Water
  • Jacket
  • Change of Socks
  • Jogging Shorts to sleep in
  • Trekking Poles
  • Compass
  • Map

I did a double check of gear and checked in with my mother.  I told her that if she hadn’t heard from me by late afternoon the following day to let Park Service know.  I headed away from the Inn and into the desert.  The mile to the Lithodendron Wash is an easy flat trail with very little elevation gain.  Once at the Wash, I was on my own.  There are not official trails or campsites.  As a general rule when cross-country camping, one looks for a campsite that hasn’t been used previously.  I start looking for a good campsite.

Camping in the Painted Desert is an interesting set of challenges.  I had to balance finding wind protection with elevation in case of a flood.  Yes, it’s a desert but if a thunderstorm occurs flooding could happen.  I didn’t want to find myself caught in a flood if I could help it.  Hiking in the desert isn’t as easy as it would seem.  The soil is loose and like to give out when stepping downhill.  I found that out the hard way.  I saw a promising campsite.  I started working my way down to the stop.  I planted my trekking pole and left foot when the soil gave out.  Down I went.  I slid about 10 ft before I managed to stop myself.  I did a quick assessment and found I had cut my left leg.

painted desert camping

It was nothing major and could wait.  The spot was as good as I had seen. I was starting to lose daylight and I need to make camp.  I unpacked by tent and got setup for the night.  I pulled my Nalgene water bottle out.  I used a spare sock to clean my leg. I grabbed my camping stove, matches, crackers, and can of soup.  I hiked about 100 ft from my camp.  I attempted to light my stove.  The wind was relentless.  I couldn’t find a windbreaker that would allow me to light my stove and keep it lit.  After my third attempt, I gave up.

painted desert camping

I found a seat and ate my cold soup and crackers and watched the sunset.  I cleaned up my food and walked back to my tent.  I left my rain fly off my tent so I could watch the stars.  But alas, I fell asleep before the stars came out.  Several hours later, the cold woke me up.  I put on my jacket and spent some time sitting on my little hill enjoying the stars and listing to the sounds of the desert.  I put my rain fly on my tent and went back to bed.

painted desert camping

I awoke just before sunrise.  I sat outside my tent and ate my granola bar.  I packed up my camp and enjoyed an early morning hike back to my car. I spent the rest of the day exploring the Petrified Forest National Park.

painted desert camping

Painted Desert Camping has been one of my favorite experiences. Where is your favorite campsite?


Check out this week Weekend Wanderlust Blog Posts

31 thoughts on “A night camping in the Painted Desert Wilderness

  1. Paige W

    Oh my gosh. This is so beautiful. I totally get why it’s called the painted desert! I’ve been to Arizona half a dozen times, but I’ve never made it here. It’s now high on my SW list!

  2. Pingback: My 9 Favorite Moments in the US National Parks

    • Jennifer Post author

      Great Plan. Far too many people don’t appreciate the things that are near their home. I was amazed when visiting a friend in London who hadn’t done any of the tourist things. He had never been in the British Museum or the Tower of London.

    • Jennifer Post author

      It was a great hike. I didn’t really have any other option but to sit there. There is no point in letting one wrong thing ruin your experiance.

    • Jennifer Post author

      The hike for the most part is easy. The landscapes are unreal at times. I want to go back a do a couple day backpacking trip there.

  3. Orana

    wow. such a lovely place to spend the night! the silence must have been intense…..or was there wind and squirmy animals? Good on you to call your mom, all hikers should always do that kind of thing!

    • Jennifer Post author

      Number one rule – let someone know where you are going and when to except you back. I never break that one. The only real sound was the wind.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge