Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico

Watch for ghosts among the mushroom-shaped rocks in this weird, lovely landscape.
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Watch for ghosts among the mushroom-shaped rocks in this weird, lovely landscape.

Little-Known Fact: During the Upper Cretaceous period (approximately 70 million years ago) the area that is now Bisti Wilderness was home to many large reptiles -- including the duck-billed dinosaur.

In the middle of the night I awoke to the unsettling sound of nothing -- a powerful, mysterious silence unlike anything I'd ever experienced. Sure, I'd heard stories about the New Mexican desert, where supernatural somethings lurk behind every rock. But lying there in the void, I felt I might have become possessed. The absence of sound created a kind of internal thunder -- probably nothing more than my own heartbeat.

We'd arrived at the Bisti Wilderness just before sundown, so we set up camp in the lingering shadows of one of the larger sandstone formations, about 50 feet high. The waning sunlight gave a reddish glow to the landscape, which melted into shades of orange and pink. Overhead the hawks that had been circling began to settle down for the evening in this weird and lovely land.

The next morning the stillness remained as we hiked through tortured topography. Like Alice in Wonderland, we hopped around on the mushroom-shaped weathered rocks, shales, and sandstones with layers of coal. The formations stood clustered together in all sizes, ranging from several feet to several stories high.

Elegantly weathered pillars -- "hoodoos" left over from the complete erosion of everything around them -- dotted the landscape. These are usually found in areas of sporadic but heavy rainfall. A geologist first coined the term hoodoo, an African word for spirit. The reasons are fairly obvious.

For most people hoodoos are too treacherous to climb and too beautiful to mar with Vibram soles. The shorter toadstools are much sturdier and more inviting, summoning the child in every hiker.

There is little vegetation in the Bisti, mostly scrubby patches of rice grass and snakeweed. But at some point in history, animals must have found the place attractive because there were hundreds of fossil sites to explore. Past paleontological studies have uncovered fossilized remains of dinosaurs, turtles, crocodiles, and other reptiles. Today this is a land of wildlife loners, scuttling among the remnant petrified wood.

The Bisti is situated in what remains of the ancient Anasazi culture, and evidence of prehistoric activities from 6,000 B.C. has been found nearby. There are Navajo burial grounds and religious sites throughout adjacent lands. When you consider the Bisti's magical silence, with its long-standing spiritual history, it's easy to feel cosmically insignificant when hiking beneath the spires. I took special care to watch where and how I walked, though I'm at a loss to explain the reason now.

With no man-made distractions, you can explore the endless web of toadstools and spires, look for fossils, watch distant storms move across the sizzling New Mexican desert, or listen for eagles. Evenings are often mysterious and chilly.

Camping in the silence that night, we returned to the question of the day: What's the real attraction of hiking in badlands? After all, how many sandstone toadstools can you climb in one day? The answer, I found, lies partly in the area's topographical strangeness, but mostly in the silent isolation. Powerful stuff.

Contact Information:

Bureau of Land Management

1235 La Plata Hwy.

Farmington, NM 87401

(505) 599-8900

Location:

The Bisti Wilderness is in northwestern New Mexico, 170 miles northwest of Albuquerque, near the state's "four corners" junction with Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. The nearest town is Farmington (203 W. Main-Suite 401, Farmington, NM 87401; (800) 448-1240 or (505) 326-7602), 35 miles south of Bisti.

Getting There:

From Albuquerque, take State Hwy. 371 north from Crownpoint, New Mexico, for 46 miles until you reach the unmarked gravel road known locally as Old State Hwy. 371. This road will take you to the Bisti Wilderness entrance at Gateway Wash, which is no more than a wire fence with an opening wide enough for one person to get through.

Seasonal Information:

The Bisti Wilderness is open year round. The best times are late winter, spring, and fall, when temperatures range from the 40s at night to the high 70s during the day. Summers can be brutally hot. Snow during winter usually doesn't last long. Portions of the Bisti Wilderness are closed in spring and early summer for nesting hawks.

Wildlife:

Ancient animal life is represented by isolated teeth and bones of fish, turtles, lizards, mammals, and dinosaurs. Although traces of wildlife are found mostly in fossils throughout the region, visitors may sight hawks and eagles soaring overhead.

Insects:

No information is available.

Plant Life:

The abundant vegetation and animal life that once existed is in stark contrast to today's barren badlands. The little vegetation now consists of scatterings of rice grass and snakeweed.

Facilities:

There are a number of designated campsites. Car-camping across from the main access point may be available by contacting the Bureau of Land Management.

Parking:

No information available.

Permits:

No permits are required for private hiking or camping trips.

Policies:

  • Motorized vehicles, mountain bikes, and cooking fires are prohibited inside the wilderness.
  • Groups are limited to eight people.

Hazards:

  • There is no water in the Bisti Wilderness, so visitors should bring plenty along with them.
  • Also, be warned that when the winter snow melts the ground ~ containing clay ~ can become quite slippery.
  • There are no developed trails or signs.

Leave No Trace:

  • Climbing on rock formations is dangerous, accelerates erosion, and destroys the scenic value of the area.
  • All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Three USGS topos of Bisti Trading Post, Alamo Mesa West, and Tanner Lake cost $4 each. Less detailed maps are also available through the Bureau of Land Management.

Other Trip Options:

The 24,000-acre De-na-zin Wilderness is just 4 miles east of Bisti. Officials are currently pursuing connection of the two areas.