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Featured National Recreation Trails

Every kind of trail activity is represented in the listing of designated NRTs. Besides hiking and bicycling, the system includes water trails, motorized routes, snow tracks, greenways, and equestrian paths. The NRT program showcases the diversity of trails across America, from our cities and suburbs to the deserts, waterways, and high mountains.



Painted Desert Trail, Arizona

The Imperial National Wildlife Refuge hosts this Sonoran Desert nature trails.

Photos by Sue McDonald, Visitor Services Manager


Map of Arizona

photo of hikers

Hiking through the volcanic ash flows

The Painted Desert Trail in the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge was developed by the YCC (Youth Conservation Corps). 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.

painted desert

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


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.


For more information:

Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 72217, Yuma, Arizona 85365

(928) 783-3371



trail noteWe frequently add NRT information, photos and maps to these pages. Send suggestions and information requests to American Trails. Research additional NRTs in the NRT database. Trail managers can update online trail information in the NRT database. You may also e-mail information on minor changes or to update Featured NRT pages.



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The on-line database has details on the currently designated National Recreation Trails. The NRT Program online is hosted by American Trails:


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Promote your trail through the National Recreation Trails Program


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