Roaming the Lybrook Badlands
I had an opportunity to explore the Lybrook Fossil Area recently with Navajo Tours. They were on a scouting expedition to put together adventures for astro-photographers, one of many types of tours they offer in northwestern New Mexico. Generally I wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to go to the badlands in August. However, after months stuck at home due to covid, anyplace beyond my backyard is appealing. Under normal circumstances, late September through early May is far more pleasant. Whereas some people may enjoy the sensation of sizzling under a magnifying glass, I don’t. Regardless of season, take lots of water and sunscreen.
Lybrook is between Counselor and Nageezi, spanning both sides of Highway 550 at various points in the middle. There’s a lot of drilling in the area, with dirt roads crisscrossing the landscape. As a Native American owned tour company, with access to BLM land, the guides at Navajo Tours know the oil and gas back roads well, including the roads that don’t appear on most maps.
Kialo Winters and I met late in the afternoon, taking advantage of waning temperatures and softer, afternoon light. I got on the road early in the day to allow time for snapping photos on the way. I was planning to fly the drone, but I found out they are not allowed in the fossil areas, the wilderness areas, or the Bisti. Whereas I heeded the restrictions, I can’t deny that it was incredibly tempting to peek at the aerial view.
When traveling north on Highway 550 from Counselor, there is a long stretch of expansive, rolling gray and black hills on the west side of the road. The mud domes have been eroded by wind and rain, forming smooth hills, with a leathered appearance. This was Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Black Place,” a source of inspiration for her from 1936 to 1949. She described the hills as “a mile of elephants,” paying homage to them through a deluge of art spanning 15 years of her career. For example, between 1944-1945, she completed six canvases and nine pencil sketches inspired by the rolling curves of mudstone. I wonder how far she wandered west of those hills, because the treasure trove of hoodoos, convoluted canyons, and colorful cliffs just beyond them is extraordinary.
San Juan Basin
Managed and protected by the Bureau of Land Management, the Lybrook Badlands are part of the San Juan Basin. The basin encompasses numerous fascinating badlands and hoodoo areas, such as Burnham Badlands, the Fossil Forest, the Bisti/De-Na-Zin, Ojito, and Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah wilderness areas, as well as several other smaller areas. Overall, the badlands extend east of the Continental Divide to areas like Plaza Blanca, near Abiquiu. However, most are on the west side on the divide, with the extensive network of arroyos and washes draining into the San Juan river.
The Lybrook landscape is a colorful spectrum of southwestern earth tones, ranging from yellow, brown, pink, and purple to stark, tall hills of layered black and white. The region is a visual cornucopia of peculiar rock formations, including tall spires, hefty hoodoos, towering caprocks, and other bizarre geologic specimens. It is a glorious place for geology geeks.
Over millions of years wind and water erosion have stripped the surrounding landscape’s epidermal layer, sculpting a stark, off-world, fantasy-land of stone. Many of the hoodoos in Lybrook are larger, taller, and thicker than hoodoos found in other badlands in the basin. It looks like something out of Star Wars. Tatooine to be precise.
The terrain in the Lybrook Badlands is rugged, with colorful cliffs providing a picturesque backdrop in all directions. There is more vegetation than the Bisti, which attracts a lot of wildlife. For example, Lybrook is a bit of a birdwatcher’s haven; home to ferruginous and red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, piñon jays, ravens, prairie falcons, quail, morning doves, and ground dwelling burrowing owls. The owls take over abandoned Gunnison prairie dog burrows. In terms of larger mammals, reptiles, and assorted critters, there are elk, deer, rabbits, coyotes, badgers, various lizards, snakes (including rattlesnakes), tarantulas and scorpions.
Like the De-Na-Zin badlands, there is an enormous amount of petrified wood througout the Lybrook Fossil Area, ranging from small chips to entire trees, including rooted tree trunks. The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is the only area in the southwest with a denser concentration of mineralized wood.
Millions of years ago a forest covered the area. At the time a shallow inland sea, the Western Interior Seaway, covered much of New Mexico. The Bisti Badlands was the delta of an ancient river that flowed into the sea. The shoreline was covered in coastal swamps, with lots of foliage and forests, populated by a variety of creatures, big and small. As the Colorado Plateau and Rio Grande rift formed, massive earthquakes and volcanoes reshaped the landscape, entombing the animals and vegetation in layers of mud and ash. Their remains became the fossil fuel that drives the local economy today, fueling the cars we use to get to the badlands and funding the roads to these otherwise inaccessible places. The lure of profit has drawn energy companies ever closer to cultural and historical treasures, like Chaco Canyon, where fracking could do irreparable damage to the remaining structures.
The Lybrook Badlands are NOT a heavy traffic area, probably due to lack of signage and little publicity. It is best not to travel alone, because if anything happens and you need another human being, you might be waiting for a long time. Though hiking, backpacking, and primitive camping are allowed, there is no maintenance crew or staff. Lybrook is a wilderness area. Please pack out what you pack in. There are no facilities or trails and roads may become impassible if it rains or snows.
The Lybrook Badlands straddles Highway 550, but most of the interesting features are west of 550. Hiking down from the cliffs isn’t feasible. Whereas there are a few routes down, the trails are not easy to find. The oil and gas roads are preferable. Most of the roads are decent, though that can change quickly if water is involved. Remember to give oil trucks the right of way. Some of them are almost as wide as the road. 4WD or a high clearance vehicle, combined with backcountry driving skills, will suffice or you can contact Navajo Tours USA and traipse the badlands with confidence.
Managed and protected by the Bureau of Land Management, the Lybrook Badlands expose the Nacimiento sedimentary layer, which is approximately 65 to 55 million years old. It is the largest of the Nacimiento badlands and one of the largest badland regions in the San Juan Basin. The black layers of coal seen today were formed by the plants and animals that died as the inland sea receded, leaving a flat plain of sandstone over soft shale and mudstone.
The geology of the region is more diverse than the Bisti. Water flowing from the San Juan Mountains stripped away the southern portion, exposing the lower Kirtland and Fruitland Formation of the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs still roamed. The fossil area is a testament to the abundance and variety of life buried long ago, including several discoveries of dinosaurs. However, please note that it is illegal to remove larger fossils from the area.
The Rocky Mountains started forming to the north and east about 30 to 50 million years ago, with other mountains lifting to the west as the Colorado Plateau rose, rain and snowmelt washed down from the mountains. The water eroded the sandstone, cutting through to the softer stone below. In some places, chunks of sandstone remained, protecting the softer layers of rock underneath from the water, forming column-like “hoodoos” over time. Note: Though it might be tempting to climb the hoodoos, they are more fragile than they look. Please don’t climb on the hoodoos.
Bureau of Land Management
Farmington Field Office
6251 College Blvd. Suite A
Farmington, NM 87402
Sunrise to sunset. No fees.
The Lybrook Badlands are about 2.5 hours northwest of Albuquerque. The only roads leading into the area are unpaved oil and gas roads, which are rarely marked well on maps. Many of the roads require a high clearance vehicle. 4WD is useful.
- Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area
- American Southwest | Lybrook Badlands
- Lybrook Fossil Area
- Google Map of Lybrook Fossil Area and noteworthy formations
- San Juan Basin Map
The Badlands are “explore at your own risk.” There are legitimate hazards to consider and guidelines to keep in mind.
- Best time to visit is spring or fall. It can be scorching in the summer. Take sunscreen, SPF a lot, and a hat.
- Pack some food and bring lots of water.
- Remember that rattlesnakes, scorpions and venomous spiders live in the area. They don’t want to meet you unexpectedly any more than you want to meet them. Take a snake bite kit if you have one.
- 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 turned around.
- Cell phone reception is spotty. If you need a signal I suggest climbing to the top of the largest hill in sight.
- Check the weather before heading out. Hiking the badlands is arduous when it gets wet. The roads get treacherous quickly and it isn’t unusual for them to wash out. Rain turns the clay into mush and most of the area is criss-crossed with washes of varying depths. On that note, do not cross any washes that have water running in them, because there is a high probability you will get stuck.
- The hour before sunrise and after sunset are particularly good for photography.
- Good hiking shoes are a must.
- Since this area is being developed by the oil & gas industry, numerous oil field trucks and tankers travel the roads. Be careful when approaching hills or curves. Yield the right of way to the oil tankards and trucks.
- Campfires are prohibited.
- Other than the fossil area, it is illegal to collect fossils or petrified wood.
- Don’t climb on delicate geologic features to take “selfies.”
- Don’t trespass on adjacent tribal lands.
- Pack your trash out.
Other Attractions Nearby
The nearest towns with hotels are Bloomfield (50 miles), Aztec (58 miles) and Farmington (62 miles).