Day Trips: Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

Unusual rock formations in an ancient river delta

Photos by Gerald McLeod

The Bisti Badlands in northwestern New Mexico look like another planet. Sandstone-capped hoodoos fill canyons like a forest of altars to strange gods.

An easy day trip from Farmington, N.M., the sculpted pillars in the Bureau of Land Management wilderness area are at least a 2-mile hike from the parking lot. The ancient river delta is now a flat desert with the rock towers and unusual rock formations providing the only shade. The landscape was created when prehistoric floods deposited sand on top of river mud and volcanic ash. Over the centuries the soft mud washed away, leaving the harder sandstone on pedestals.

Evidence of a much different world than what is there now is everywhere. Petrified logs, some six feet in diameter or more, lie entrapped in the gray mud that has turned to soft rock. Shards of petrified wood are scattered around the desert floor like fresh wood chips. Rust-colored stones covering mounds of dry sand were once mats of algae that thrived when this was a wetland. In the Seventies, the artistic rock features were considered expendable for the coal under the ground. Fortunately, this wonderland was saved from mining.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is 36 miles south of Farmington. There's no admission fee, nor are there clearly marked trails. The wide canyon that was once a river valley essentially runs east-west, but a topographic map and plenty of water are comforting companions on a day hike.

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Bisti Badlands, De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico

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