Bisti Badlands  

(Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness), located in the arid desert of northwestern New Mexico, is one of the closest approximations of an alien world, right here on Earth.

If you are visiting New Mexico this winter, and have a little extra time to explore the region, the Bisti Badlands are one of our lesser known but no less spectacular (than other popular), attractions.

Craving a day or two away from the fray? This is the place for you! A place that has no set trails or even designated camping areas. Just a place to wander and soak in the magnificence of Nature’s myriad manifestations.

The area is named not only from the striking stone formations that litter the landscape (“bisti” being a Navajo term meaning “among the adobe formations”), but from the striking petroglyphs of a crane  that were found in the area—”De-Na-Zin” is the Navajo word for the animal.

The blasted sandstone and shale landscape is covered in strange and undulating forms. Huge hoodoos (tall, thin rock spires) and small labyrinths of singular stone shapes have been created by eons of moisture wicking away at the softer layer of volcanic ash, creating these mushrooming oddities.

Despite looking like a set for a science fiction movie, the area has surprisingly not been widely used for filming, and thankfully remains rather remote and pristine.

In fact, rarely visited and largely unknown, the Bisti Badlands is an amazingly scenic and colorful expanse covering 4,000 acres, hidden away in the high desert of the San Juan Basin that covers the distant northwest corner of New Mexico.

Be aware that are no amenities at the parking area or anywhere around the area—no water, no toilets, nothing. You must come completely prepared to be on your own. Temperatures can be extreme, so dress in layers..The area where the rock formations are located is about 1.5 miles from the parking lot, and there are no trails, signs or guideposts.

It would be very easy to get lost here if you’re not careful. A GPS unit is highly recommended, as there is very poor cell phone coverage in much of this area and even when there is coverage phone maps don’t provide details.

After a few minutes walk into the wilderness, the road moves out of sight and the surreal formations are all around. The clay hills that cover most of the wilderness are composed of thin layers of coal, silt, shale and mudstone with varying hardness and coloration, and are mixed with more resistant sandstone which has eroded into thousands of these weird formations – hoodoos, ridges, arches, balanced rocks and small canyons – arroyos created by rainwater erosion criss-cross the hills,

There are caves and narrow fissures several meters deep, but much of the surface is unstable – the layers are often loose, rocks are crumbling and some of the formations are quite delicate, so hikers should take care, especially considering there are no established trails, but walking along the ravines and the valley floor is the way to explore.

Petrified wood is scattered across the surface, especially to the southeast – sometimes entire tree stumps, with the bark and growth rings still clearly recognizable. Fossils may also be found, and the teeth and bones of a variety of large dinosaur species have been discovered embedded in the earthy layers.

Navigation can be difficult, as there are no major landmarks in the badlands, and little change in elevation, though there are several groups of distinctive orange-colored mounds in amongst the generally yellow-brown hills.

The hills also contain black coal layers, in between the shales and sandstones, and also complex bands of red/purple/black metamorphosed rock, formed by ancient coal fires. These rocks are found as boulders and strata embedded in the lighter layers, and also as fine pebbles, scattered over the surface.

There is little sign of wildlife in the badlands, and vegetation is limited to small bushes along the bigger washes – otherwise the land is completely bare.

The badlands are administered by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), are free to enter, and are known officially, but less evocatively as the Bisti Wilderness Area. There are no signposts pointing the way to Bisti from any nearby towns,

The best Bisti access point is off State Highway 371 at Road 7297, about 40 miles south of Farmington. Follow the gravel Road 7297 east for about two miles to a T-intersections and turn left. Drive almost one mile to the Bisti Access Parking Area.

Bisti is the smaller component of a 15 mile wide wilderness area that also includes much larger De-Na-Zin Wilderness which is equally colorful and even more remote, although partially covered with vegetation.

Farmington, being approximately 35 miles from the site, would be your best bet for a hotel room you could return to, after a day spent quite literally, in the middle of nowhere!

For more information, please visit the sites linked below,


bisti/BLM gov


All images Stock Files

2 thoughts on “Bisti Badlands  

  1. One of the most mysterious places on Earth. Barely a blade of grass exist there yet it lives and breathes with an occasional drop of rain.. Pictures are fantastic, who took them? I hope to get back there once again. Thank you again for Taos style….

    • Thanks for commenting Karen. It is a very mysterious place, I agree. One of the natural wonders of the world – or this state, at the very least!
      Images are all stock files!

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