Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 2, 2016

Hoodoo Wilderness: Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

This is the first of two articles about the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico.

If your hiking boots are urging to you to leave the trails and tread in wilderness, and you crave a spectacular landscape, there’s one tucked into a corner of northwestern New Mexico that’s not on every hiker’s radar: the Bisti Badlands.

Bisti Badlands Brad Nixon 009 (640x402)

Erosion has removed layers of interbedded sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal, and silt, leaving an otherworldly landscape of bizarre hoodoos. Where harder rock caps the softer layers, the erosion leaves mushroom-shaped formations.

Bisti Badlands Brad Nixon 003 (640x402)

It’s beautiful, serene and endlessly fascinating scenery. After you leave the trailhead, you’ll be completely out of sight of roads or power lines in only a few hundred yards, surrounded by wilderness. Pay attention to where you are, your compass, your orientation to the sun, your shadow or landmarks. Bisti is not vast, but getting lost (or, as Daniel Boone once said, “A mite bewildered for a few days,”) is always a risk for the heedless hiker.

Bisti Badlands Brad Nixon 002 (640x401)

There are no man-made navigation marks other than the occasional stack of three small rocks, the universal trail-marking sign for “this way.” There is no source of water (unless it rains on you), and the high desert, approximately 6,000 feet elevation, can be unforgiving of errors.

Bisti Badlands Brad Nixon 001 (640x415)

The rewards are great. An hour or two of walking in Bisti is an unforgettable experience in a desert with no sounds other than the wind and your own footsteps, nothing to see but what nature put there. It’s one of the most memorable landscapes I’ve ever seen, and the fact that, according to the trail register, there had been no other visitors for several days made it all the more appealing.

Bisti Badlands Brad Nixon 004 (640x410)

Primitive camping is permitted, although fires are not, and I know that all UWS readers invariable carry out every scrap of whatever they brought with them. Thank you. The utterly lightless environment would make for spectacular nighttime skies in clear weather.

You’re entirely on your own in Bisti, and responsible for treading lightly. It’s required thousands of years of erosion to create the formations, and the most powerful potential reshaper of the land is you and your fellow hikers. Much of the surface is unstable, and it’s best to stick to the watercourses and important to stay off the hoodoos and cliffs. It’s possible to find petrified wood and even dinosaur fossils, which you’re not permitted to collect. Leave them for the next visitor to see.


Bisti Badlands is one of two wilderness areas administered by the BLM as the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. I’ll address the De-Na-Zin Wilderness in a second post. The nearest city is Farmington, in the far northwest corner of New Mexico, and it’s an easy drive south on paved Route 371 to an unpaved parking area and the Bisti trailhead.

Farmington-Badlands and D-N-Z map new

As the map indicates, 371 also connects to interstate 40, about 75 miles to the south, at Thoreau, east of Gallup. Make certain you have fuel and supplies before you start. There are no services to speak of between Farmington and Bisti. Don’t expect cell service, either.

Although this map shows Chaco Culture National Park for reference, because I’ve written several times about it, it can’t be reached from Route 371. For detailed directions about reaching Bisti/De-Na-Zin and Chaco, please go to: Getting There: Chaco/Bisti.

Info and Caveats

There’s no admission fee. The site is unattended.

The best seasons to hike Bisti are probably Spring and Fall.

Take water. It’s a particularly barren desert. Summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, and there is no shade to speak of.

Summertime is also the season for regular afternoon thunderstorms. You’ll be the tallest thing around in much of the area, an excellent lightning rod. Keep an eye on the sky.

Sign the trail register so someone knows you went out and when. Log out when you return.

Understanding Bureau of Land Management Lands

The Bisti Badlands is public land, administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), not a national or state park. For those not accustomed to outdoor exploring in the American West, and especially for visitors from abroad, the role of the BLM can be confusing.

Much of the American West is public land, not private property. It is controlled or administered by a large number of federal and state organizations, including BLM, U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Native American reservations, branches of the U.S. military and the individual states, among others. BLM’s responsibilities span 247.3 million acres, one eighth of the landmass of the U.S. It dwarfs the area protected by the National Park Service, larger than all but 30 countries in the world.

BLM administers significant holdings of wilderness lands, lakes, streams and rivers, visited by 61.7 million visitors in 2013. BLM also controls land on which it issues permits and leases for a long list of other uses, including mining, logging, grazing, energy generation (renewable and non-) and oil and gas drilling. It is a large and influential arm of the government, with far-reaching impact on the economy, culture and life of the West.

Not everyone is a fan of the BLM. The conflicts between the agency and ranchers, loggers, miners, hikers, municipalities, fishermen, hunters, Native American tribes, conservationists, developers and anyone else with a stake in the fate of the lands are often severe, even violent.

As travelers, we can only pull on the shoes, sign the register at the trailhead and walk lightly, eyes open, and hope that the lands will always be free under western skies. Keep walking. There are generations coming behind you who’d like to walk there, too. Leave no trace.

Bisti Badlands Brad Nixon 006 (640x438)

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017

For a description and photos about hiking in the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, the other half of Bisti/De-Na-Zin, GO HERE.


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