There are many places in New Mexico with landscapes more reminiscent of a Star Wars movie than what most people would expect from the high desert. There are opportunities to camp amidst lava boulders (El Malpais & City of Rocks), to hike into a sea of white dunes under a full moon (White Sands), or to explore a hoodoo strewn ancient riverbed. The latter, the Bisti-De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in northwestern New Mexico, is one of the most unusual; a stark, alien landscape, with undulating hills in white, black and red punctuated by hoodoos and natural windows. It looks like a different world. At one point, long ago, it was a different world, populated by dinosaurs long before humans arrived in the region.
The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness encompasses 41,170 acres of rock formations that would seem more natural on Mars than in New Mexico. The U.S. Congress designated the Bisti/De-Na-Zin as a wilderness area in 1984. The Bureau of Land Management manages the site.
Translated from the Navajo word Bistahí, Bisti means “among the adobe formations.” De-Na-Zin, Dééł Náázíní, translates as “Standing Crane,” which is a reference to crane petroglyphs found south of the Wilderness. The Bisti/De-Na-Zin is one of several protected badlands in the Four Corners area. Ah-She-Sle-Pah Wilderness is a few miles south and the Angel Peak badlands is about twenty miles northeast.
The dinosaur fossils found in the badlands are a testament to ancient life in the region and a testament to the rich energy resources that lie beneath the surface. The buried remains of prehistoric forests, plant and animal life created large coal deposits and an oil field, which frequently leads to conflict between those who want to capitalize on the energy reserves and those who want to preserve the natural and cultural treasures.
70 million years ago (or so) most of New Mexico was covered by a shallow inland sea, the Western Interior Seaway. At the time, the continents of the planet were configured differently and New Mexico was equatorial. The region that includes the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness was a river delta feeding into this sea. The fossil record preserved samples of freshwater life that flourished in that ancient river.
The river’s current shaped and relocated mounds of sediment. As the water receded, swamps formed, creating lush foliage along the riverbanks. Prehistoric mammals roamed the region. Over millions of years the remaining water dissipated. Massive amounts of organic material accumulated, compressed over time into the beds of lignite seen today. The lignite beds are primarily in the De-Na-Zin area, which is where most of the petrified wood and fossils can be found. There are narrow channels in the De-Na-Zin area that look like there was a recent flood, with entire trees tossed around like straws in dead end gulches…except the trees are stone so the flood must have occurred long ago.
Water, Fire, and Erosion
When the sea and river dried up it left a 1400-foot layer of sandstone, mudstone, shale and coal. Layers of coal are still readily visible, but a significant amount of it was consumed millions of years ago by a fire that lasted for centuries. How do we know this? The “Clinkers.” A “clinker” looks like a pottery shard or a chunk of brick, depending on size. They vary from pale to bright red. The name “clinker” comes from the sound they make when you walk on them. Basically, the layer of clay that accumulated on top of the coal was fired like a ceramic vase at high heat for an extended period of time.
Geologists aren’t sure what caused the fire, but there are a lot of volcanoes nearby and, at some point, one or more of them deposited a thick layer of ash. The increasingly arid region took on an even more stark appearance, because volcanic ash erodes quickly and does not retain water, resulting in sparse vegetation and limited wildlife. All of it was entombed in layers of sandstone where it remained largely undisturbed for millions of years. However, underground a metamorphosis was happening. Water seeped through the ash, depositing lime that gradually accumulated, becoming limestone tubes. The caps of many of the gray hoodoos are limestone.
Whereas igneous protrusions are a common source of stone pillars and pedestals, in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness the pillars and hoodoos exist because everything around and below them eroded. The plains surrounding the Bisti are about 6,500 feet above sea level, but the badlands lie 200-400 feet below the plains. What you are viewing at the Bisti is what lies under the surface. Wind and water peeled back layers over millions of years, forming the surreal landscape of hoodoos and spires.
The Big Reveal
The big reveal occurred about six thousand years ago when the ice associated with the last ice age melted. The resulting flooding eroded the sandstone, exposing fossils, petrified wood and the limestone tubes. Time, wind and water continued artistic erosion, sculpting the layers of stone into the surreal fields of hoodoos and towers visible today. The western side of the Wilderness, formerly called the Bisti Wilderness, is primarily Fruitland Formation. The eastern side of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, formerly called the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, exposes the Kirtland Shale. Volcanic ash covers many of the features in the De-Na-Zin area.
The De-Na-Zin (eastern) side of the Wilderness looks like an undulating riverbed, with small and large channels winding around rounded hills. The area has more sand and less ash than the Bisti, with fewer hoodoos and higher hills. The exposed layers of shale coincide with the K/T boundary layer. The K-T boundary are the layers of rock reflecting the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, formed about 65.5 million years ago. The Bisti/De-Na0Zin Wilderness Area is one of the few areas of public land in the world where the boundary layer is visible.
Based on relics found, it is estimated that humans have occupied the area almost continuously since 10,000 BC. Located less than 30 miles north of Chaco Canyon, the area contains numerous Chacoan sites and is crossed by the prehistoric Great North Road, which connected major Chacoan Anasazi sites in the San Juan Basin.
Exploring the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area
Based on my last few trips to Bisti, you may see a few people hiking at the main area, but it isn’t unusual to have the place all to yourself. There are two main washes in the Bisti. Both run east to west, with west being downstream. The northern wash is named Hunter Wash, and the southern is named Alamo or Gateway Wash. The main parking area provides access to Alamo wash, which typically attracts more people. The northern wash gets far fewer visitors.
Elevation averages around 6,300 feet, and the most striking scenery is in the southern two-thirds of the wilderness area. You can camp at either the parking area or within the Bisti. The Wilderness boundaries adjoin parcels of private land. Please respect private property. Carry a map, a compass, and plenty of water. Backpacking and horse packing are unrestricted, but campfires are forbidden.
Rainfall isn’t common, with only 8 inches on average per year, most of which falls in July and August. However, when a downpour does occur, the soil, typically baked like an adobe brick, softens into a slippery, squishy, slimy mess, which is a challenge to navigate on foot or in a vehicle. Keep an eye on ominous clouds.
Hunting for Hoodoos
There are no hiking trails in the Bisti. Exploration is free style and it is best to be prepared, because company is scarce. If you stay in the main washes and get lost you can always find your way back to the parking area by following the washes downstream (west – towards the setting sun in late day) until you find the road. If you choose to go into the hills on either side of Alamo wash, it is easier to become disoriented. It is like being in a maze, with a lot of dead ends. I suggest a GPS. Note the coordinates of your car before you head into the hills. If you do not have a GPS it is best to stay in the wash. There are ample photo opportunities like the “Cracked Eggs” and the “Rock Garden”.
Many of the well-known rock formations can be seen on hikes of 2 to 5 miles round trip, but it takes more than one trip to truly explore the area. It is best to hike in the early morning and late afternoon. There are no marked trails in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness.
Farmington Field Office
6251 College Blvd. Suite A
Farmington, NM 87402
Sunrise to sunset.
There are no fees. Primitive camping is allowed in the De-Na-Zin wilderness area.
Typically, I travel from Albuquerque via Hwy 550, north through Cuba. The main parking area is located on Hwy 371 between Crownpoint and Farmington, which involves taking County Road 7500 north of Nageezi. More detailed directions below. This route passes the parking area for the De-Na-Zin wilderness area.
From NM 371 (between Crownpoint & Farmington): Between mile markers 70 & 71, there is a highway sign. Turn onto the access road and continue about 2 miles to a T-intersection. There is a small brown sign. Turn left and continue about a mile to the main parking lot, with a wire fence on one side. Signage is minimal. There are no bathrooms, no emergency phones, no visitor center or ranger station, though there is a small wooden kiosk with a sign-in log. You can’t see much from the parking area. It looks like a large, open wash.
The De-Na-Zin Trailhead is on the north side of County Road 7500, which runs between NM 371 and NM 550. The parking area is easy to miss. I have driven past it knowing where it is. There are two small wooden signs, one within a mile on each side and a larger sign at the parking area.
From the west, the turn on to CR 7500 from NM 371 is clearly marked by a brown sign for the “De-Na-Zin Wilderness,” 7-8 miles south of the Bisti turnoff and almost 40 miles north of Crown Point. Proceed 13.2 miles on CR 7500. After 12.2 miles going east, you will cross a cattle gate in a sandy area. The parking lot is on the left one mile from the cattle gate.
From the east, the turn from NM 550 on to CR 7500 is between mile markers 127 and 128, also marked by a sign. Stay to the right at the first fork – the signs can be confusing.
- Best time to visit is spring or fall. It can be scorching in the summer.
- Bring lots of water (and food as needed)
- There are no facilities.
- There are no marked trails. GPS or a compass is useful unless you have an uncanny sense of direction and a bloodhound sense for finding hoodoos absent trail markers. If you are hiking without the use of navigational tools, keep an eye on prominent rock formations or distant mountains to stay oriented. It is easy to get lost and many of the channels/canyons are dead ends. The main Bisti parking lot is due west if it becomes necessary to head towards the setting sun.
- Cell phone reception is spotty. If you need a signal I suggest climbing to the top of the largest hill in sight. I have also had good luck standing on cattle guards.
- Watch the weather. Spring can be windy and storms/lightning could be hazardous. Both the terrain and the dirt roads become increasingly impassable with water. Flash flooding is possible. Rain turns the clay into mush and most of the Bisti is a wash with occasional labyrinths of slot canyons.
- The hour before sunrise and after sunset are particularly good for photography.
- Good hiking shoes are a must.
GPS Coordinates for noteworthy formations
Clinkers, Lignite and Ancient Clam Shells
N 36˚ 15.921′; W 108˚ 14.150′
Wings on the Flats
N 36˚ 15.969′; W 108˚ 13.984′
The “Nursery” or the “Cracked Eggs”
N 36˚ 16.035′, W 108˚ 13.425′
Eroding Petrified Log
N 36˚ 16.086′; W 108˚ 13.199′
Field of Hoodoos
N 36˚ 16.292′; W108˚ 12.706′
N 36˚ 16.122′; W 108˚ 13.571′
- Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area
- Rock Formations | Coordinates
- Bisti Hiker
- Bisti Dinosaurs (Video)
- Boondocking the Bisti
The Four Corners has sustained life for millions of years. The badlands provide evidence in the form of fossils, from the age of the dinosaurs through the mega-fauna that attracted ancient hunters to this region. Humans have flourished for 10,000 years.
Noteworthy: Alien Throne and the King of Wings.
Angel Peak Badlands
Noteworthy: Megafauna fossils and Angel Peak
When it comes to Ancestral Puebloans, Chaco is like going to the capital.
Rougher terrain, with more foliage and wildlife than the Bisti. Taller hoodoos and spires.
Chacoan outlier established around 1064 AD.
Prominent, and impressive, volcanic neck, dominating the horizon near Farmington.