Dinosaurs once roamed this extraterrestrial desert, wading through the prehistoric coastal swamp of an inland sea.
The lush landscape was home to forests, reptiles, and early mammals. At first glance, you might never guess that this eerie alien world was once swampland, but the unique formations of the rocks and vistas are a window into the ecosystem of the past.
Located in the arid desert of northwestern New Mexico, the Bisti Badlands (formally the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness) is a BLM managed area covering 45,000 acres. Here at the edge of the Navajo Nation, the haunting world of the Bisti and De-Na-Zin has an ancient story to tell,
beginning 145 million years ago in the Cretaceous period.
Bisti (pronounced bis-tie) is a Navajo word meaning “a large area of shale hills.” De-Na-Zin is taken from a Navajo word meaning “Standing Crane” – a reference to the uniquely formed hoodoos, pillars and rock formations that occupy the area. Petroglyphs of cranes have also been found south of the wilderness.
As I wandered through the otherworldly rock formations, so many ideas for surreal sci fi films and fashion shoots came to mind. Surprisingly, the Bisti has not been widely used for filming, save for the 1977 film, Sorcerer.
Humans have lived in the region for more than 10,000 years, and much of the land is sacred and historically significant to the Navajo and other local tribes. I explored the Bisti with a Navajo guide whose family has lived in the area for many generations.
If you’re a hiker, photographer, history or nature lover, the Bisti is a once in a lifetime experience that should definitely be on your bucket list.
I visited in June before the weather became unbearably hot, during an incredible road trip all around the state of New Mexico. During my solo trip I visited Albuquerque and Santa Fe, spent two nights in Farmington to explore the Bisti Wilderness, then continued on to Taos, spent a night in an Earthship, and finally drove down to the White Sands National Monument.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- There are no services or facilities, come prepared. The closest large town is Farmington, which is about 40 miles north.
- This is a true wilderness area, there are no marked trails.
- Bring lots of water and some snacks.
- Cell phone reception is spotty.
- Wear hiking boots or athletic shoes.
- There is little to no shade, be careful when hiking in high temperatures.
- Check the weather before visiting. Roads and terrain may become impassible in wet weather.
- Watch for lightning and flash floods.
- It is easy to get lost while exploring. If you have one, bring a GPS unit or compass to help navigate the area. There are also phone apps which let you follow the footsteps other hikers have taken. I’d recommend the All Trails Pro ($29.99/yr) app. Another good option is the Gaia App($20). Keep an eye on where the wash is. If you get disoriented, you can always come back to the wash and find your way to the parking area by following it to the west.
- There are south and north access points to the Bisti Badlands, and different formations can be seen depending on where you enter.
WHAT NOT TO DO IN THE BISTI BADLANDS
- A special permit is required to film or photograph the Bisti for commercial use
- Motorized vehicles and bikes are not permitted in the wilderness
- Campfires are not permitted
- Visitors are not allowed to remove rocks, fossils or petrified wood from the park
- Drone use is prohibited
WHAT TO PACK
The weather can change quickly in New Mexico, it can go from intense sun to thunderstorms within an hour. The Bisti hiking area is large and unshaded, so you’ll want to bring layers, a brimmed hat with a neck strap so it doesn’t blow away, hiking or athletic shoes, and sunglasses. Be sure to pack sunscreen, a snack, and a full water bottle (or two!)
If you’re planning on hiking alone or without a guide, I’d recommend bringing a compass or GPS system and a flashlight, just in case. There are no marked trails and it can be easy to get disoriented out there. We hiked all day and didn’t see a single person. You may even want to bring a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). In case of an emergency, the PLB can send your position to a network of search and rescue satellites.
For optimal light and temperatures, start your hike early in the morning or a couple of hours before sunset. You can also get some incredible views and photographs at night if you choose to camp out. Definitely bring warm clothes and a headlamp if you’re going out there in the dark!
There are no large animals in the Bisti, so you don’t need bear spray. Just keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and scorpions and you’ll be fine.
Recommended: All Trails Pro Phone App ($29.99/yr)
The All Trails Pro app works without a cell phone signal. You can search for an area and see photos and routes from other people who have hiked the area before. It allows you to see exactly where the most popular rock formations are throughout the Bisti.
The app is very accurate, it can find your location within about ten feet! Just make sure your phone is all charged up before you head out hiking, and it never hurts to bring a portable charger. There is a bit of a learning curve to use the app, so I’d recommend trying it out somewhere close to home before heading out into the wilderness.
I brought the Nikon CoolPix B700 (all the shots in this post were taken with it) which is always a great go to for travel and outdoor shots. I especially like it for wildlife photography because the zoom is fantastic. If you’re looking to level up to a more professional camera I highly recommend the Canon EOS R Mirrorless Camera. (I didn’t own the Canon yet when I went on this trip or I would have taken it.)
The mirrorless design makes the camera more lightweight, quiet, and durable than a traditional DSLR, and the picture quality is stunning!
THE HISTORY OF THE BISTI WILDERNESS
Established in 1984, the Bisti wilderness is made up of thousands of acres of desolate badlands. Anasazi and indigenous North Americans have occupied the area almost continuously for 10,000 years. A section of the Great North Road and many Chacoan sites can be found within the region, as well as more contemporary Navajo sites.
Yet long before the time humans walked the Earth, the Bisti was home to prehistoric creatures large and small.
The 80 million year Cretaceous period of global warming and volcanic activity caused ocean levels to rise, creating swamps and inland seas. Large sections of what is now North America were covered by these shallow waters. Beneath the surface, marine mammals lurked, some as long as 60 feet!
At the western shore of the North American Inland Sea, a thick conifer forest grew out of the swamp. As the enormous trees grew and fell, they became entombed in layers of mud. Millions of years later, these conifer trees still rest in peace, petrified immortals, some as long as 100 feet.
As the waters receded, a unique process of erosion began. Colorful sandstone and shale forms labyrinths, vistas, and hoodoos (tall, thin spires of rock.) Exploring the Bisti Wilderness is the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to being on another planet. No wonder New Mexico loves aliens and outer space so much! Some of the formations are so top heavy it’s hard to believe they’re real until you see them in person.
What was once home to dinosaurs, primitive mammals, reptiles, and large trees is now a time capsule, filled with ancient stories and disappearing a bit more with every breeze and thunderstorm.
SITES TO SEE IN THE BISTI BADLANDS
The De-Na-Zin Wilderness is larger than can be explored in a day, but you can see many of the famous rock formations in one or two hikes, especially if you go with a guide who knows their way around. There are no maintained trails, but you can follow paths walked by previous hikers using printed out maps or an app like All Trails.
The most popular formations to see include the Bisti Wings, the Brown Hoodoos, Vanilla Hoodoos, Conversing Hoodoos, Manta Ray Wing, the Alien Egg Hatchery and petrified trees. There’s also a dragon that looks like he flew right out of Game of Thrones! Read Firefall Photography’s post for more details about each of the sites.
WILDLIFE IN THE BISTI BADLANDS
You may be lucky enough to spot golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, prairie falcons, scorpions, lizards, snakes, and even porcupines during your hike in the Bisti. If you do see birds nesting (between February and July,) be sure to keep your distance and move away quietly. Not only can the smallest disturbance cause these rare birds to abandon the eggs in their nest, it’s also a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Act. Be sure to pack out any food, trash and other items you bring into the area as well, to help protect the wildlife.
VISIT THE BISTI BEAST
New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands were also once home to an early, smaller relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. A fossilized skeleton of the dinosaur was discovered in 1997 by Paul Sealey, and after excavation in 1998 by Dr. Thomas Williamson, Ph.D., it was dubbed the Bisti Beast (Bistahieversor sealey). This was one of the first paleontological excavations performed in a federally designated wilderness area, and an astounding 40 to 60 percent of the skeleton was preserved.
The Bisti Beast roamed the wilderness about 74 million years ago, and stood about 30 feet tall. To date the best has only been found in New Mexico.
However, the Bisti Beast is not the only prehistoric specimen discovered within the Bisti. Araeologists have uncovered numerous other fossils, including the duck-billed dinosaur Parasaurolophus, a Pentaceratops, a large sauropod named Alamosaurus, as well as prehistoric turtles, fish, crocodiles, and other species.
GETTING TO THE BISTI BADLANDS
For my New Mexico road trip I flew into Albuquerque, spent three nights there, three nights in Santa Fe, drove out to Farmington, spent the night and then visited the Bisti Badlands the next day.
The Bisti De-Na-Zin is reached off NM 371 by either traveling 40 miles south from Farmington or travelling 46 miles north from Crownpoint.
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-intersection and turn left. Drive almost one mile to the Bisti Access Parking Area. Parking and hiking is free.
Once you turn off from Highway 371 you will be driving on a dirt road, but you don’t need high-ground clearance or FWD.
Note that are no amenities at the parking area or anywhere around the Bisti—no water, no toilets, nothing. You must come completely prepared to be on your own and hiking for a few hours, or overnight if you’re camping. It can be extremely hot in the daytime and very cold at night. Stay hydrated!!
Once you reach the parking lot you’ll hike about 1.5 miles in before you start seeing hoodoos and rock formations. Most of the famous formations are 2-4 miles from the parking area. There are no trails, signs or guideposts, and very poor cell phone service.
Visit the Farmington Museum & Visitor Center for detailed directions and help in planning your Bisti adventure.
MAPS OF THE BISTI BADLANDS
The Farmington Museum & Visitor Center has topographical maps, GPS coordinates and local tips for visiting the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. Located at 3041 E. Main Street in Farmington, this is an good stop to make before your Bisti adventure.
There is a Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness map on Google Earth Maps. GPS coordinates of formations within the Bisti are available on the Google Earth Map.
- Google Earth Map of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness
Simply download Google Earth to use the Google Earth Map. You can also import the file into Google Maps online.
GUIDED TOURS OF THE BISTI BADLANDS
As a solo traveler, I was very intimidated by hiking alone out into the Bisti Wilderness. I also wanted to make sure that I found all the most interesting rock formations and hoodoos. I didn’t want to spend all my time looking at a map, worrying about whether I was going to get lost, I just wanted to enjoy the hike and take lots of photographs!
So I decided to book a tour with Navajo Tours USA, which turned out to be the highlight of my entire trip to New Mexico.
Najavo Tours is a family run business which has only been around for a few years, but they are quickly making their mark as one of the best tour companies in the business. National Geographic Travel named them one of the top trips of 2019. Kialo and his family (the owners of Navajo Tours) have lived in the region for generations.
When you go on a tour with them you’ll not only get to learn about the rock formations and geology of the area, but also the history of his family and the Navajo tribes. I was fortunate to have a one on one tour with Kialo as my guide, so we had many hours to get to know one another. He was very patient any time I wanted to stop to take pictures and was also happy to take pictures of me along the way.
Although you could explore the Bisti Badlands on your own, after experiencing it with Navajo Tours I wouldn’t recommend doing it any other way.
With a tour guide you can just relax and take in the sights, and you’ll see and learn so much more.Navajo Tours offers both group and private tours of the Bisti Wilderness and nearby Chaco Canyon. You can choose to go in the morning or late afternoon.
They also organize special overnight trips. The family has plans to open an inn or bed and breakfast in the coming years, which would be an incredible addition to the experience. The current lodging available around the Bisti is definitely lacking.
WHEN TO GO
The Bisti Wilderness is open all year round, day and night. The best time to visit Northern New Mexico is between September and November. During this time, temperatures range from the high 20s to high 70s. Springtime has a similar climate with similar hotel rates, but the festivals in Santa Fe make fall a more popular time to go.
The spring can also be windy in the Bisti. Summer temps range between the 50s and upper 80s. However, Summer is the peak season, making hotel rates high and availability low. Winter can be chilly with highs reaching the upper 40s during the daytime and lows in the teens at night. The Bisti is at 6500 ft elevation, it does snow out there. I visited in June and the temperatures were getting to be pretty hot in the middle of the day but still tolerable. It rained for an hour or so almost every evening.
WHERE TO STAY
It’s most convenient to stay in Farmington, a large town about an hour north of the Bisti Wilderness. I drove out from Santa Fe, spent two nights at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Farmington, and did two hikes in the Bisti. The Fairfield is clean and convenient, they have lots of parking, a gym, and breakfast is included each morning.
Book your stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites
WHERE TO CAMP IN THE BISTI BADLANDS
If you’d rather camp out in the Bisti Wilderness, there are a number of areas to choose from. I didn’t get a chance to camp, but the night photography I’ve seen from overnight Bisti trips is out of this world. If you do camp, note that there are no bathrooms, food or water nearby.
DISPERSED BLM CAMPING
Free camping across the wilderness area is allowed since the region is managed by the BLM, but won’t come with amenities or services. For specific rules on BLM camping areas in the badlands of New Mexico, the BLM offers basic advice online. As with any form of dispersed camping, follow all Leave No Trace rules.
Gallo Campground is located within Chaco Culture National Historical Park, in the center of these New Mexico badlands. The campground offers camping in a rugged environment, surrounded by petroglyphs, a cliff dwelling, inscriptions and a high desert landscape. Despite the sparse natural environment, this campground offers amenities like running water and flushing toilets, as well as spacious tent sites.
ANGEL PEAK SCENIC AREA
This is a BLM managed campground located about 15 miles south of Bloomfield, NM. Views around this campground are phenomenal, according to visitors, including a sight of the titular Angel Peak. Covered picnic tables and clean bathrooms are top features, while the surrounding area offers hiking and other activities. This is a great location if you are going to day trip around the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area and Aztec Ruins National Monument.
MOORE’S RV PARK AND CAMPING
This campground in Bloomfield, NM offers camping for both tent campers and RVers. It is a well-manicured park with large trees, a pool and even a dog park. Visitors have noted the park has excellent Wi-Fi and cordial service from a family-owned business.
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