An enjoyable walk takes you to Agate House, a pueblo that archaeologists believe was briefly occupied around A.D. 1100. (Archaeologists suspect a brief occupation because little trash was found in the area.) Colorful bits of petrified wood dot the ground on the way to the eight-room pueblo, which sits atop a knoll overlooking a vast expanse of arid badlands. Made from petrified wood and mortar, Agate House must have been one of the prettiest dwellings anywhere in its time -- a house of jewels, on a hill. Workers reconstructed the pueblo's largest room in the 1930s. Note: Combine this loop with the Long Logs Trail for a 2.6-mile hike.
1 mile RT. Easy to moderate. Access: .5-mile one-way walk down access trail from Rainbow Forest Museum.
Blue Mesa Trail
This paved loop trail descends steeply to the floor beneath the blue-, gray-, and white-striped badlands at Blue Mesa -- some of the prettiest land in the park. You may notice that it's hard to determine the size of the hills: Because they lack vegetation, there is little to provide a sense of scale. At the bottom, you can observe how the different colors of these hillsides streak and blend where the clay has washed into drainages. Look for small fossils, abundant in the area (and please leave them where you find them!). The trail has numerous interpretive panels, spaced to give you a chance to catch your breath as you walk.
1 mile RT. Moderate. Access: Blue Mesa sun shelter.
Crystal Forest Trail
This paved trail, which includes a few steep grades, reminds us of why it's important to leave petrified wood in place. As in other parts of the park, there is evidence of where visitors have broken off, and continue to break off, pieces of petrified wood. What's left is still lovely. Still, it's hard not to wonder what this area looked like before the scavengers arrived.
.75 mile RT. Moderate. Access: Crystal Forest parking lot.
Giant Logs Trail
This paved trail loops past some of the park's largest petrified logs, including "Old Faithful," which spans nearly 10 feet at its base. The trail has 11 stops, each corresponding to a page in a guide (free to borrow, small fee to keep) available in the museum. At each stop, you'll find out about the trees or the area's geology. Constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the trail has some steps, making access difficult for people in wheelchairs.
.4 mile RT. Easy. Access: Behind Rainbow Forest Museum.
Long Logs Trail
This relatively flat, paved loop will give you an idea of the immensity of the Araucarioxylon trees that grew in this area during the Triassic period. Many of the longest, including one that measures 116 feet, lie alongside the trail on the north end of the loop. You'll see places where petrified logs protected the softer clay underneath them and prevented it from eroding. The trail also takes you within a few feet of the rugged badlands. The different-colored layers are caused by mineral deposits in the clay.
.6 mile RT. Easy. Access: .5-mile one-way walk down access trail from Rainbow Forest Museum.
Painted Desert Rim Trail
As this cinder trail meanders along the Painted Desert rim between Kachina and Tawa points, it affords stunning views of the gray, pink, and red badlands that stand out against the green grasses at their bases. The trail is atop the basalt of the Bidahochi formation, which, at 8 million years old, is much younger than most other rocks in the park. This layer has disappeared in many areas of the park but is widespread in other parts of northern Arizona. Here it provides fertile soil for a diversity of vegetation, including juniper, Mormon tea, sagebrush, and cliffrose. The trail also features wayside exhibits and plant identification signs.
1 mile RT. Easy. Access: Kachina Point stop on scenic drive.
Painted Desert Wilderness Route
This cross-country hike -- we can't really say there is a trail here -- descends in switchbacks down the face of the badlands below Kachina Point, then follows a wash for a short distance before heading out into the grasslands on the floor of the Painted Desert. You won't find water or shade, but you will have a chance to experience the desert's colors and landforms. Before wandering far, be sure to identify landmarks to retrace your steps. (The Painted Desert Inn makes an especially good landmark.) If you carry a topographical map and plenty of water and sunscreen, you should have few problems in this desert, which has excellent sight lines and few insurmountable obstacles. Walk on the dry streambeds when possible. Besides being easier, this minimizes the damage to the fragile plant life.
It's worth spending the night just to watch the sun dip below the red sands of the desert. Before bedding down, you must obtain a backcountry permit at one of the visitor centers, then walk at least a mile into the 43,000-acre Painted Desert Wilderness, which starts on the other side of Lithodendron Wash. The direction you take from the bottom of the wash will depend on which "use area" you sign up for. You'll find spots smooth enough for camping near many of the mesas and badlands. (Keep in mind, however, that runoff can create problems during storms.) Don't forget to pack insect repellent; in spite of its dry climate, the park has been known to host a large population of no-see-ums, a gnat-like insect with a painful bite.
About .5 mile minimum one-way. Moderate to strenuous. Access: Kachina Point.
Puerco Pueblo Trail
This relatively flat loop travels through the 100-room Puerco Pueblo, believed to have been occupied by the ancestral Puebloans between A.D. 1250 and 1400. The 30 excavated rooms hint at the floor plan of the buildings -- a trapezoid around an outdoor plaza where most of the activity in the community took place. As you walk, you'll observe places where the rooms were one, two, or three deep around the plaza. Where they were two deep, the rooms on the outside may have been used to store crops harvested from the flood plains below. The inside rooms, which opened onto the plaza, were probably used for sleeping or shelter from inclement weather. Three kivas -- ceremonial rooms dug into the ground -- were inside the plaza, and one is obvious alongside the trail. Partway around the loop, a short trail leads down to an overlook from which you can see numerous petroglyphs.
.3 mile RT. Easy. Access: Puerco Pueblo parking lot.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.