Bisti Badlands Bewilderness

I’ve never been one to ask the question, “What can possibly go wrong next??” as I often find that as soon as I ask the question, I am shown the answer. The year 2020 has turned out to be one of the worst of my lifetime, second only to 2015 when I lost both my youngest brother and my Dad within 3 months of each other. Still overall, I am reminded its been a good life.

But when thinking about bad news, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does bad stuff keep happening because I have written off this entire year to suck? Or is it a bad year because bad stuff keeps happening? In other words, can a “year” have a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I have enjoyed an unbelievable eight years of solid, trouble-free ownership of my Winnebago View. The old girl is pushing 100K miles, and I have had a disproportionately small number of issues. Until 2020, that is…

It started with turning on the rooftop air conditioner during the first summer heat wave, only to hear the hum of the compressor come to life, yet its companion, the fan just wouldn’t engage. Thankfully after being told a full replacement at $1,200 was the only solution, a $25 capacitor replacement ended up doing the trick (though it took three attempts to fix it!)

Then I had to deal with two error codes prompting the Check Engine Light in Santa Fe. Phase one of that warning indicator was the EGR (exhaust gas re-circulation,) which could either be a 30 minute cleaning or an entire replacement. I dodged the bullet once again, and the cleaning did the trick. I got out of Santa Fe to the tune of $330. Though I still have the pesky Check Engine Light due to a necessary glow plug replacement, a “can” which I have kicked further down the road since it’s only one out of six plugs gone bad.

Arriving at the Bisti Badlands parking area can be quite disappointing for non-hikers as one quickly realizes they must hike for at least a mile before the scenery gets interesting. Take heed! There is nothing here! Bring water. Bring snacks. And most importantly, bring a map/app!

Once one is into the wilderness for a mile, however, things get interesting quickly.

So many shapes, colors, and oddities begin to appear.

Some of them seem to defy logic.

While others appear downright kooky!

And erosion has sculpted some beautiful works of art.

This makes me think “Octopod Rocks”

This one reminds me of a castle.

And this one makes me think of temples I saw in Bagan, Myanmar.

There is a lot of this red brick-like covering that looks like pottery sherds. This type rock is due to burned coal in an ancient fire. The brick-colored clay that was baked over the burning coal layer is called “clinker.”

So I arrive into Abiquiu on a brutally windy day with gusts up to 30 mph. I pull over in Riana Campground and cut the engine off to unhook, when I hear a loud pop, followed by wind howling overhead. Having stopped With the wild wind now at my back, a gust rips the skylight cover open and breaks one of the retaining levers. Not sure if the wind was that strong, or if I failed to latch it properly, regardless, I would need to climb up there and wire it shut until I could get a replacement part.

So then I move on to my reserved parking spot, turn on the slide motor key to extend the slide-out, only to have the slide stop half way in and half way out. Though motor still runs, the slide room won’t move. Likely the shear pin, I think. Good thing I have a spare. Bad thing is, that is the extent of my knowledge. I have to beg the Army COE maintenance man to come help me manually crank the slide back in, as I don’t have the strength.

Oh, and did I mention the temperature is dropping, and I have yet to get the gas furnace to ignite this season?

I spend the next morning calling around to RV Repair shops. I have the option to wait five days for an unknown repair shop in Farmington, or 10 days for a highly recommended shop in Albuquerque. Seems RV Repair is the business to be in these days! Since I have three pressing issues, I opt to wait for the “known” shop that comes with the glowing recommendation.

But where to wait for 10 days?

While Ghost Ranch did have wifi that occasionally wafts through the campground, I had zero AT&T signal there. So hanging out there for 10 more days is out of the question, especially at $35 a night. My next planned stop is little more than a gravel parking lot in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from even the nearest Coke machine. Could I find enough to do there to keep me occupied for 10 days?

Ten and then some…

This is the area known as the “eggs.” Some refer to it as “Alien Eggs” while the official wilderness map refers to the are as the “Egg Hatchery.” It is by far the most popular feature in the Bisti Wilderness.

I prefer the “alien” reference, as they remind me of the pods in the 1985 movie “Cocoon,” where aliens were left behind in pods that looked a whole lot like these eggs!  The pods were moved to a pool in a retirement community, where their presence in the water emitted some vibe that made the geezers young again.  I loved that film, which is maybe why I loved this section of the wilderness!

Thinking about this movie as I wandered through this field of eggs made me feel a sense of intimacy, as if the eggs were occupied by some alien lifeforms.

Some of the “shells” lying about made the egg theme very believable.

This one looks like it’s got a small heart inside the egg.

I was drawn to this section of the wilderness over and over. I went several times at sunrise until I was sure I knew the route and timing required to make it back by dark. Then, I returned at sunset.

In the early mornings, I had the eggs all to myself. The only time I ran into anyone here was on my “sunset shoot.”

This one looks like it has a backbone beneath the surface.

By far my favorite spot. I even took a thermos of coffee with me one morning and sat on a nearby mound of dirt to contemplate the unusual colors and shapes.

Back in November of 2018, I got an email from friend and fellow blogger Judie, asking if I had ever been to the Bisti Badlands, saying “it looks like your kind of place.” Not only had I never been there, I had never even heard of it. But as is often the case, I was racing across New Mexico from Utah at the time, heading back to Texas for the holidays with no time to stop. Meanwhile I added these badlands to the list should I ever find myself with time to spare in New Mexico.

The Bisti Badlands (pronounced “Bis-tie,” named for the Navajo word “Bistahí” meaning “large area of shale hills”) is actually two sections that make up a 45,000 acre wilderness. The BLM managed area, the Bisti Wilderness Area on the west side (Hwy 371 access.) is adjacent to the larger De-Na-Zin wilderness located on the east side (Hwy 550 access.) The De-Na-Zin section is named for the Navajo word for “standing crane,” a bird found on petroglyphs in the area. Since many of the Native American sites are closed due to COVID, I opted to visit the Bisti, or the western side. While the De-Na-Zin is larger, it’s more sand hills with fewer formations. The Bisti side is reported to be more scenic. But even more importantly, being BLM land, I could camp there for up to 14 days.

Upon arrival into the parking lot, the area looks pretty bleak. A picnic table, two pit toilets, and a kiosk. That’s it. And it’s a mile hike out into the wilderness until there is any sight of the formations. It’s so bad, it doesn’t even look like badlands! But once you put the mile behind you, it opens up into a phantasmagorical playground, a labyrinth of stone shapes, canyons, hills, and hoodoos. No established trails or directional signs anywhere, just whatever guidance you can find on your app. Wander to your heart’s content, just try not to damage anything.

Another popular feature in the wilderness is petrified wood. I saw more petrified wood here than any place I have been outside of the Petrified Forest NP. It was everywhere, from piles of shards and splinters, to entire logs.

Many of the logs were perched atop hoodoos, supported beneath by formations that withstood erosion, as the weight of the log mechanically slows erosion beneath the log due pressure exerted on the clay.

This was the tallest of the petrified wood hoodoos. It was about shoulder height when standing at the same level.

Colorful petrified logs were often found jutting out of the base of hoodoos.

This one’s got a little wood pile stacked next to it.

This log was at least 20 ft, most of it intact.

In the lower right third of the photo is a root ball of what i believe to be a petrified cypress tree.

Note petrified logs dead center of the photo.

Wandering in the wilderness is ideal for letting ones imagination run wild, as the mind’s eye tries to focus these formations into familiar shapes. For me, that familiarity came as a return to my adolescence. As I wandered through towering hoodoos that seemed to take on individual personalities, I reminisced back to those afternoons coming home on the school bus, changing out of my dress and pantyhose (we weren’t even allowed to wear pants back then.) I would grab a snack, and settle in front of the TV with my older brother Don, who loved scifi. We would watch our favorite after school line-up, beginning with one of our mutual favorites, Lost in Space. As I stared out across the monochrome clay landscape with the bizarre rock hoodoos and mushrooms, I could imagine the evil Dr. Zachary Smith hiding behind some hoodoo plotting his dastardly deeds, while the Robot’s arms wave wildly, his control panel and glass bubble head flashing as he warns, “Danger, Will Robinson!” Not only is it easy to get lost in the wilderness physically, but mentally as well.

I took over 700 photos while wandering through the wilderness. I think that may be a personal record for any one stop. Paring them down for this blog post proved to be an impossible task to stick to my usual limit of 30-35 photos. I doubled that, and still left half my favorites on the “cutting room floor.”

For seven straight days, if I wasn’t “afield” by sunrise, it was only because I was resting my sore feet for sunset. I walked more miles in the Bisti Wilderness over one week than any place since I left the forest near Cloudcroft.

And of course, as one would expect for a “badlands” area, there are an abundance of hoodoos of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Some of the more prominent or unique hoodoos are named. For example, this one is labeled on the map as “Elegant Hoodoo.”

These are indicated on the map as “Brown Hoodoos.” There are also “White Hoodoos” and “Vanilla Hoodoos,” though the brown ones are much easier to distinguish.

These formations are named the “Stone Wings,” and are one of the more sought out features in the area. I think they look like a squadron of soaring stingrays.

It’s difficult to realize these were not sculpted and mounted atop the cliffs edge, but rather have always been here while the cliffs around them eroded.

Another sought out feature is the pair of “Conversing Hoodoos.”

I should have taken a full length selfie here for scale, as these two hoodoos soar to almost 15 ft.

Of all the features I searched for like an old fashioned treasure hunt, these to Conversing Hoodoos were hardest to find, as they were behind another wall of hoodoos. I finally sat down in the dirt, plugged in the coordinates into the Gaia app, and used the “Guide Me” feature to find them.

Here is a hint to finding the Conversing Hoodoos:

That lime green squiggle circles are my attempt at finding the Conversing Hoodoos…until I marked the coordinates and figured out the “Guide Me” feature, and then I went right to them.

Then some formations are more like “reverse hoodoos” for lack of a better term. Instead of towering up high, they are carved beneath the surface in a canyon.

Can’t you just see Lost in Space’s Robot come rolling out from behind one of these hoodoos?

Wonder how erosion resulted to two layers atop these hoodoos?

Wouldn’t you love to see this place in a rainstorm? Imagine the pouroff from some of these stones. Don’t do it though, as the sticky, silty mud would be horrific. I saw several footprints that looked like shoe prints at the bottom of a pothole.

I have, however, set my intentions to return here one day during a full moon. (armed with GPS tracking, of course!)

In exploring such a vast wilderness with no designated trails and not a single directional marker to be found, I became a big fan of my now favorite hiking app, Gaia GPS. Not only were maps of the area available, but the map also contained suggested dotted-line trails with locations of the most popular features. Sitting in the parking lot in between hikes, I overheard so many people say “We looked everywhere but never found the ‘eggs.” Had they downloaded the Gaia GPS map, it would have taken them straight to them and more.

I also became familiar with all the features of the app, not only recording all my tracks to avoid getting lost as I wandered through the unmarked badlands, but also learned to use the “Guide Me” feature, whereby I could input coordinates, and the app would act as a magnet, guiding me there. I came to depend on the app so much that I loaded it onto a second android phone so as to have redundancy (though for some odd reason, the android version had the map, but not the landmarks found on the iphone version.)

Should anyone end up in the Bisti wilderness and need help finding any of the “features” pictured here, I am happy to share landmarks via private message, as I came to know the area pretty well over my extended stay. But I came upon a couple of Instagramers, one posing prone across the stone top of a hoodoo and another straddled atop one of the eggs, so I am reluctant to post too much. After all, the Bisti Wilderness offers everyone the opportunity to tap into their own “inner child,” so finding the features is half the fun. And the harder the Easter egg hunt, the greater the adventure, I say. 😉

You may see reference to the “Bisti Arch.” It was only about two feet high, and collapsed in March of this year (Thanks, 2020!) There are, however, quite a few beautiful “windows” made by this harder rusty brown siltstone layer over the softer ashy gray sandstone layer.

Most of the formations capped by this rust brown layer are found in the north/northwest sections of the wilderness.

This towering hoodoo has a Ferruginous Hawk’s nest built on its shoulder. It was reported to have been abandoned in 2007. I can’t imagine what they found to eat out here!

This makes me think of a seashell.

“Hoodoo City, NM.”

Many fossils have been found in this area, including those of a dinosaur, the “Bisti Beast,” now in the New Mexico Natural History Museum.

This delicate little hoodoo poking its head up in back makes me think of “E.T.”

Lighting is everything in this wilderness. Try to stay overnight here if you can, as it is at its best at sundown and sunrise. But bring everything you need, as there is nothing here but your imagination!

And another bonus of staying overnight….some pretty spectacular wide-open sky sunsets!

28 thoughts on “Bisti Badlands Bewilderness

  1. Thanks for sharing your fantastic photos of the Bisti Badlands. I’m a longtime NM resident and have heard of the badlands but never visited. Tent Rocks is a much smaller area between Santa Fe and Albuquerque that has some of the same features.

  2. Wow!!! I didn’t know about this place! It’s on my list, thank you Suzanne for sharing such a beautiful place, your photos are gorgeous! Hope those RV issues are all behind you for the rest of the year.

  3. Enjoyed your photos! As many times as we were in NM we never quite made it to Bisti or Chaco Canyon. Seems like we had other places to be and just drove by that area. It’s still on my list if we ever get another RV 🙂

  4. Suzanne, you are so good at taking me on journeys to places I have never seen. Such an amazing place. Such an amazing way you have of finding the words and providing the images to create a tale that captures our spirit and imagination. Thank you for sharing.

  5. People who pose on formations just irritate the living snot out of me. Don’t touch the features! Do they go pose on the Rosetta stone? I think not.
    How is the Winnie, is it all fixed?

  6. I googled the “Gaia GPS map” site & found the first question they ask is to select from several maps. Which ones do you have on your phone to give you the features you describe in this post? The Bisti Badlands has been on my list for a few years… when the border re-opens after Covid will head down south that way. Love your Blog… !

    • Hi, Karen. Thanks for the comment. I learned we have mutual friends, John and Mary Wells (which reminds me, I owe John an email!) I do not recall the prompt, if there was one when I loaded the Gaia App. Can you tell me what the choices are, and maybe I can recall? Sorry, but I loaded it a long while back. It was free at the time…hope that is still the case!

  7. I had no idea that geology such as this existed in New Mexico. When Deede and I drove through the petrified forest in Arizona I had allowed 40 minutes of our schedule for the drive through and six hours later I reached the end of the park and had to drive a bit faster than I wanted as I headed for our night accommodations at the Canyon de Chelly. This edition was absolutely fascinating. I am enthralled by what you have shown and described to us. Thank you and I hope that you have caught up with the needs of your faithful mobile. Where ever you are we wish you a happy thanksgiving.

    • Allen, I had this exact same experience in the petrified forest! I woke up with the intention to drive through, and ended up spending the night in some nearby truck stop because I ran out of time! Happy holiday season to you and Deede!

  8. I had not heard of the Bisti Badlands, thanks for the tour! It’s now on the list.
    Hope your RV repairs are soon complete. My Sprinter is a couple years newer, with the V6 engine, it’s much more picky as to the diesel fuel. We lost a glow plug also, which resulted in the dreaded Limp-home-Mode.
    Continued safe travels.

    • Hi Jeff. Thanks for the comment. I have the V6 engine as well. First year following the T1N, but pre-DEF. So far, knock wood, I have not had any impact from the glow plug besides the CEL. If you circle back to the comments, would you let me know the approximate cost to replace yours? Thanks!

  9. I loved this ! Your photos and written descriptions are great. Thanks for taking me to a place I’m unlikely to go. If your heater hasn’t been fixed yet, try hitting the side of the heater , gently then trying to start it again. Mine quit a couple of years back and it worked for me. LOL Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are.

    • Thanks, Annie! Actually, someone told me about this trick, but I must not have hit in the right place. I am going to write more about my repair experience in the next post. Happy belated Thanksgiving to you too! Hope it was healthy and happy!

  10. Weird, wild and wonderful! I found myself studying each photo as if it were a Rorschach test, visualizing ancient creatures well adorned with the coolest of headgear! As mentioned elsewhere in the comments I was reminded of Tent Rocks (which I was prompted to visit after reading your post) yet Bisti appears more desolate, sparse and, best of all, void of people.

    While traveling through NM I picked up a few Tony Hillerman hardbacks at various thrift shops and read them by headlamp in the back of my Tahoe where I slept most nights. This delightful post reminded me of those detective novels set in the Four Corners area (Farmington, Shiprock) where Bisti is located. When you mentioned you’d like to return there to camp under a full moon I imagined you hanging around a campfire with Leaphorn and Chee. 🙂 What an adventurous life you lead, Suzanne…thanks so much for sharing it with us!

    • I wish I could have hung around the campfire, but no fires allowed in the Wilderness. However, there was a practically new BBQ grill in the parking lot beside the picnic table. I wiped that bad boy down with a Lysol wipe, covered it in foil, and grilled one of the best rib-eyes I’ve had in a while, all to the setting sun and rise of the thumbnail moon. Next best thing to hanging with Leaphorn and Chee! 😉

  11. Thank you, thank you for that wonderful tour. I will definitely go there, I love Badlands. When I was a child, we went to Castle Gardens, between Worland and Tensleep WY, a couple of times. I fell under the spell of that otherworldly spot. It was ‘snakey’ though and after seeing and hearing a green rattlesnake under a sagebrush, it was no longer on our approved list of places to picnic. I did learn about levitation, however, a useful ability when in snake country.

    • Thank you, Marquita. I have not done much exploring in WY, so I will make sure to visit Castle Gardens next time I am that far north.

  12. Oh, boy!! This was on our New Mexico trip for Sept/Oct 2020 but…you know how that went! We’ll try again next fall. I wish we had realized this place was so spectacular when we visited Chaco. We stayed in Farmington for that visit. It seems like it would be best if we could boondock right at Bisti Badlands. We don’t have any solar but can do a couple days with the generator even with a residental frig. I’ll be in touch for some other info!! We have an android phone but could easily take the ipad with us to use the app you suggested. Your photos are so wonderful. Thanks for sharing so many. Hope things are going better with Winnie!!

    • Hi, Pam. Don’t take the ipad, just plot some of the coordinates for the features on your GPS before you head out. I am going to send you a link to the resource I used for coordinates. Take care!

      • Thanks, Suzanne!! I have a zillion questions about your visit to this beautiful place, but since we aren’t planning to visit NM until next fall, I hold off til we get closer. We postponed our spring trip and our fall trip. Sure hope this virus moves on soon.

  13. That place looks AMAZING and just my cup of tea as well. I’d have taken as many photos too. So glad you shared as I do hope to get back down to NM at some point (I loved loved Tent Rocks when I was there). I’m going now to check out that app!

  14. I have known about Bisti but tend to forget until reminded. After this wonderful post I’ll have to be sure we get there. Many years ago I had Chaco Canyon on our family vacation list, but we were there during a rainy period and we decided driving our van back that long, very rough (at least then, don’t know about now) road with the very real possibility of rain was a bad idea. We’ve not made it back yet and I regret it, but we will someday. Thank you for the wonderful photo journey, it’s truly my kind of place 😉

    • Hi, Marti. Yes, agreed, you do not want to go near this place in the rain! While the gravel road is likely okay, I don’t believe it would be possible to hike very far into the wilderness without bogging up in the clay. Hope you and Ed are hanging in there!

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