Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Bisti Badlands, Northern New Mexico

Essence: The finest of a community of badlands in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico east of the Navajo Nation. Meander without a trail amongst Nature's whimsy where your natural sense of balance and form is distorted. Loop hike visits hoodoos capped with thin plates of sandstone, egg-shaped boulders, and enormous petrified logs. Wild colors, divergent textures, and organic, amorphous forms guarantee a mesmerizing day in this strange and fantastical sculpture garden. Solitude is likely.
Travel: From Durango, drive west on US Route 160 and turn left on CR 141, Wildcat Canyon Road. Go south on the La Plata Hwy, CO State Hwy 140, which becomes New Mexico 170 at the state line. In Farmington, turn left on US Route 64 and then right in 1.2 miles on Murry Dr., following a sign for New Mexico 371, the Bisti Highway. Bear right in another 0.9 mile on NM 371, at the Shell station. Driving south on NM 371, continue past the Bisti Wilderness sign at mile marker 77. This leads to the north entrance which is an option for another day. Just before MM70, 35.5 miles south of the Shell station, turn left at the Bisti sign onto San Juan CR 7297.  The gravel road is suitable for 2WD vehicles with decent clearance. In two miles go left on CR 7299. Turn right into a large, dirt parking lot in just under a mile.  Allow 1:50 from Durango. No facilities; carry all the water you will need.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7 to 10 miles; 200 to 500 feet of climbing. You can easily burn up ten miles and every glimmer of daylight.
Time: 5:00 minimum
Difficulty: All off-trail; impossibly slimy when wet. Navigation challenging off the main wash. Landscape markers are subtle so it is easy to get lost out there. If you are at all directionally impaired, carry a compass or GPS. No exposure but watch the caves, tunnels, and fissures.
Maps: Bisti Trading Post; Alamo Mesa West, NM 7.5 quads
Latest Date Hiked: March 9, 2016 (Bisti is pleasingly temperate in spring and autumn.)
BLM Wilderness: In 1996, Congress combined the Bisti and De-Na-Zin Badlands to form the 45,000 acre Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area. Bis-tie translates from the Navajo, "a large area of shale hills." Group size limit is eight.
Quote: There are distinct voices inside rocks, shallow washes, shifting skies; they are not silent. And there is motion, subtle, unseen, like breathing. Joy Harjo

Bisti Badlands is a necropolis of sandstone temples and ziggurats and a maze of gullied passageways, all painted with striated tinctures.  (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Geology: Bisti was once covered by an ancient inland sea that left a two-mile thick sedimentary layer. During the Late Cretaceous period 65 to 80 million years ago this was a coastal swamp inhabited by dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. Biological pandemonium produced a prolific fossil record still interred in stone. The bowl-like San Juan Basin we know today was formed some 20 million years ago from faulting, volcanism, and uplift.

Bisti's geologic history has created a region defined by variable form, texture, and color. Soft ridges and small hills cover the region. Red knolls are covered in burnt sienna and deep purple shiny, clinking chips. The brittle shards and fragments were once clay soils baked in subterranean coal fires. Bone white, smooth and silky hummocks are eroding silt and clay. Glistening black and grey coal deposits and veins are the remains of buried forests and creatures. Orange sandstone blocks tumble down off linear parapets.

Resistant sandstone layers are interbedded between strata of shale, mudstone, coal, and silt. Whimsical and downright strange weathered formations include impossibly thin sheets of sandstone precariously balancing on pin-head mudstone pinnacles. Massive organic chunks of stone oppress and protect their underlying pedestals. There are occasional arches and innumerable hoodoos that are so beguiling you will ponder the living nature of rock.

Vegetation is almost entirely lacking today. However, five successive forests lined waterways and shoreline, including redwoods, pines, willows, and palms. The ancient trees are immortalized. Petrified wood fragments are scattered all about. Indeed, they are everywhere. Please don't let that be an excuse to carry away even the smallest piece. Bisti is prized for its robust collection of colossal fossilized logs and stumps. The hike outlined here visits the best of them.

Earth Pillar. (Chris Blackshear, photo)
Route: Alamo Wash and its many dry tributaries runs roughly east to west, coming alongside our South Trailhead. If you are content to stay quite near the main arroyo, navigation will not be an issue. However, many of the best formations are some distance from the drainageway. Be realistic about the nature of this labyrinthine place and the difficulty of precise navigation. I will give guidance to the locations of some of my favorite features but I can't promise you will find them. I'm confident whatever you find will be equally fantastic. The trip outlined here begins on the south side of Alamo Wash and bears east to the petrified logs. It then heads north before returning west on the north side of the wash. The blue-dot line is a more direct return route than the black-line option. If you walk straight back from the logs, it is about three miles.

Locate the BLM register and information board on the east side of the South Trailhead, elevation 5,760 feet. The excellent map posted there deserves careful study. Wiggle through the fence gate and walk on a flat clay surface toward the Two Red Hills as these women are doing. The landscape is somewhat uninviting at first; Bisti's beauty must be discovered.

Aim for the right/south side of Two Red Hills and you will be there in a fast 0.7 mile. The best formations are along the edges of the broad drainage, clearly visible. Climb a few feet to get the lay of the land and for an introductory immersion into the Bisti experience. In the intricate and complex little section pictured, the Two Red Hills are in the distance and up close, sandstone is weathering into a field of hoodoos. A coal seam underlies and purple shards are scattered uniformly on the surface.

Bisti is Earth's best narcotic. Large cap rocks improbably balance atop twin columns. The color pallet is an ombre screen with muted to vivid hues fading into each other.

Continue east and at about 1.2 miles, drop into a broad drainage, the location of Mushroom City.
Featured are low capped pillars balancing exotic shapes. How many thousands of years has this thin table top protected its pedestal from eroding moisture?

The elegant Bisti Odalisque reclines in Mushroom City. She is sculpted from spheroidally weathered sandstone.

Playful opportunities abound. The ball-and pillow structures result from concentrations of iron. The overall composition conveys a rhythm of line, shape, and texture. A cerulean sky contrasts with earth tones.

Clearly, the mud and siltstone minarets hoisting these hefty sandstone blocks are stronger than they appear. These very mature hoodoos will inevitably topple.

The sensational Cracked Eggs, aka The Hatchery (+36° 16' 2.67", -108° 13' 25.48"), are on a flat surface on the south side of Alamo Wash about two miles into the hike. Think of them as embryological hoodoos at rest in burrowed sand. They are arguably the most beautiful formations in the wilderness area. A more poetic descriptor would be begonias about to open into full flower. (Chris Blackshear, sunrise photo)

Staying along the south edge of the wash, about 0.8 mile past the egg-shaped boulders come to a fossilized log roughly 30 feet long suspended in situ, eroding from a mudstone wall. Poke around for there are many significant logs in this fossil forest area.

Oddly, the petrified rock is the only stone lichen favors in Bisti. The color spectrum is neon yellow to vermilion orange. In the midst of random chaos this symmetrical scene is reassuring. 

One stone log is 33 feet long and two feet wide. And that doesn't count additional sections scattered on the ground.

You can decipher growth rings in some of the glassy, opalized slices. This root system looks like wood; only the texture betrays the transformation.

At this log cluster, our route turns north. If you've had enough exploring, the trailhead is three miles west. Just follow the subtle channel of the main arroyo.

To continue, walk north following openings created by tributaries. Go right of this tower capped with orange rock. Looking at the horizontal bedding, the light bands are inorganic and the dark, organic. The first of two abandoned Ferruginous hawk nests rests on the platform. Bisti is inhospitable to wildlife in general but we did spot an oversized jack rabbit and ubiquitous ravens.

About 0.6 mile north of the petrified forest, you will come to one of my favorite regions, marked Subterranean Hoodoos on the map. Massive slabs of flat stepping stones are at ground level with their thin supporting towers underneath. This image shows how channel sandstone plates become dissected to form isolated hoodoos.

You may pass by this petrified log perched on a stand with its companion rounds shattered and scattered around the base.

Plan to spend some time wandering around in this area for there are plenty of sweet rewards, such as these sublime plates shielding the more easily eroded material below.

If you go far enough north, you just might find the Bisti Wings region. These creatures are poised for launch.
Walking west on the north side of Alamo Wash are a plethora of turrets hefting a layer of orange-brown sandstone boulders with softened edges. Dislodged blocks have tumbled in a pleasing and predictable manner.

This solitary orange cube is an outlier.

If you return on the blue-dot route you may happen upon two arches at 5,800 feet. The top of this one was unaccommodating.

The black-line route will lead into a field of fossilized stumps. Pictured, is a fused combination of frozen log and sandstone. (THW, photo)

A tenuously perched hoodoo rests upon a platform with popcorn skin. This creature, eternally preparing for flight, is relatively thick compared with sliver-thin plates seen throughout Bisti.

The broad arc through the north side will take you by formations that are every bit as fascinating and plentiful as anything on the south side. Scamper up short steep climbs to ridges and hillocks, jump across fissures and pits, finesse your way down skinny ravines, tunnel through hardened mud, pass lineups of low toadstools. This area is a serious maze so have a plan for finding your way back to the trailhead.

Traveling west, watch for a prominent banded monolith and turn south on the east side of it. Continue on the east side of a fence line and you will be aligned with the Two Red Hills.

If you stay until dusk the elongated shadows of marvelous stony creatures will begin marching across the desert. The repetition of rocks suggests infinitude. (Chris Blackshear, photo)


  1. Poetry in stone. Your descriptions are a welcome change from the normally dry-as-dirt(yes) geological science-paper style.

  2. A MUST see when we visit our land in NM.