Bisti Badlands Wilderness Area, NM

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They say that NASA faked the moon landing, by filming one of humanity’s greatest moments right here on earth, perhaps in a place like Craters of the Moon National Park.  Well, I have a suggestion.  If they ever decide to pull one over on us again, and convince the world that man has landed on a distant planet, populated with advanced alien cities, they need look no further than the Bisti Badlands in northwestern New Mexico.

This strange desert landscape has eroded over the centuries, to form some of the strangest formations on earth, or any other planet.  It’s a photographer’s dream–acres of small hills and washed-out valleys that truly feel like a different world.  And, it’s so remote, you’ll have the desire to plant a flag and claim it for your home world.

Finding the Bisti Badlands will, perhaps, be your biggest challenge.  The wilderness area is located off NM Rte. 371, about an hour south of Farmington, and approximately 90 minutes north of I-40.  In other words, right in the middle of nowhere.  To spot the Bisti area, look at a map.  Do you see the point where Rte. 371 takes a 90 degree turn?  That’s it.  The Bisti Badlands are located along a dirt road, just to the east of the highway.  There are signs for the wilderness area, and for the Bistani Church.  If you’re coming from the north, also watch for a historic marker on the right, then take the dirt road that branches off to the left.

Once you’ve found the edge of the wilderness area (and the old trading post-turned-church, which we’ll explore later), drive up to the fence and park your car.  It feels a bit like a parking area, but it’s really just a dry, flat desert floor.  During my visit, having absolutely no clue which way to go, I climbed through the fence and headed for the nearby hills on the northern side of the wash.  There were a few formations there, but nothing impressive.

Instead of breaching the fenced area, I recommend you hike south, following the fence for a while.  Eventually it ends (or turns, or otherwise disappears) allowing you “in”.  You’ll hike roughly east, and after 15 minutes or so, some incredible things will start appearing.

Come prepared for a long, yet relatively easy hike.  In the summer it will be very hot, so bring plenty of water and a snack.  Also remember your sunscreen: the desert floor is highly reflective, so you’ll be bombarded with sun rays from every angle.  It would be best to not attempt this hike alone, since you will be in a remote wilderness area, and there won’t be many others around to help in an emergency.

It’s very unlikely that you’ll go to this place and find the exact same formations that I photographed.  When I walked by some of these rocks the second time, I barely realized I had seen them before.

As you hike, you’ll see a few strange things like the one pictured above: a “wall” of easily-erode-able rock, topped with some larger, harder, less soluble stone.  This one was a kind-of “finger” stretching out from a hillside.

None of the hills are higher than, perhaps, 100 feet, and most are gently sloped, so you can climb around at will.  Most of the formations are pretty sturdy, even though they look fragile, but I’d still recommend using caution not to damage anything.

This formation (I’ll call it the Witch’s Hat) jutted up in the middle of the wide, flat valley.

After hiking for about 15-30 minutes (follow the arroyos, or dry riverbeds, east), you’ll start to notice some interesting stuff happening in the valleys on your right (to the south).  Pick one and head in, and before long, naturally-formed modern art sculptures begin to jump out of the hillsides.

Climb up to a higher vantage point, and there it is: an entire city of these strange formations, stretching out in every direction.  No single picture can do it justice.  You’ve just gotta experience it for yourself.

For photographers, the hardest decision is choosing which formations to shoot.  I spent an hour or two taking pictures, and I felt like I could have gone on forever.  Everywhere you look in the Bisti Badlands, there’s something that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

One site which every visitor to the Bisti Badlandsmust visit is the cool, virtual-reality site BistiBadlands.com.  You’ll need to have Flash installed on your computer.  Access the interactive map for 360o photos that truly immerse you in the surroundings.  It still can’t compare to a real visit, but it’s close.

I barely scratched the surface of the Bisti Badlands.  You can spend an hour or two, hiking deep into the wilderness.  I only hiked about 1/4th that distance, but it still took several hours, since I spent so much time exploring every side canyon.

The similar, but even less visited, De-Na-Zin Wilderness is just a few miles away, down a dirt road east of the highway.  There is a sign or two along the main road that will point you in the right direction. 

Once you’ve made the long walk back to your car, you may feel the urge to check out the old, seemingly-abandoned buildings at Bisti.

UPDATE: Some of the information I had about these buildings at Bisti, and the assumptions I made, were incorrect.  A former resident of the area provided this information:

 I’m from Bisti and most of the info on the buildings are wrong. Yes there was a church, Bisti Methodist Church – and it had just celebrated its 50th anniversary around 2002 (not sure exact year) there was a major wind storm after that destroyed the buildings and caused the church fire – the gym was an actual gymnasium/ dormitory when the church was a mission school in the 1940s/50s was also a great skating rink when I was a kid in the 80s – the old trading post was not on that property, it was located north and across the road just east of the big hill, it was destroyed long ago and there is nothing left to identify it.

There used to be a house and laundry facility connected to the gym on the east, the house was torn down in the late 1990’s- the so-called livestock pen was a screened in dining area for church dinners and social gatherings – these buildings have only been abandoned for a few years since the fire, but the desert ages everything. 

It’s sad to see the way things change in so little time, it was once a thriving church community full of laughter and fellowship – we had the same services as regular church services, just in Navajo – including children’s nativity at Christmas, palm branches on palm Sunday, sunrise service on Easter, we learned our bible verses in Sunday school classes.

 I hate to think that people see what it has become these last few years and assume that “these people” are living in a different world – we are just the same as everyone else, trying to make ends meet in a tough economy – the people that made the handprints in the gym now have high school diplomas and most of them have college degrees – if you visit the Bisti Wilderness area in the future, please be respectful of the land and people.

There’s an old oil pump (not running) and a metal-roofed garage (that’s missing its windows and part of its sheet metal walls)…

… a livestock pen (outdoor dining area?) and a playground, complete with merry-go-round and nothing much else…

… and a pair of outhouses.  Behind, you’ll notice the burned shell of another building, which I assumed had caught fire years ago.   The entire area appears to be completely abandoned, so I spent some time poking around.  (The surrounding fence had clearly been torn down in several places, so there wasn’t anything stopping me).

I started by climbing into the old metal-roofed garage, and that’s where I first found signs of life.

The building had been converted into a very crude, and probably somewhat dangerous, gymnasium.  The walls were painted, obviously, by the local children.  It was clearly a Navajo church group who did this, since some of the verses written on the walls were in Navajo.  (The Bisti Wilderness is not technically within the Navajo Nation, however, the boundary lines are just to the west of Rte. 371.)

As I wandered a little further, I checked out the burned building behind the gym.  To my surprise, this wasn’t an old trading post, but rather, a church!  And it turns out, the fire must have been fairly recent (my visit was in December, 2006).  Before I left the area, several local folks showed up, apparently to sift through the building’s ashes.

After returning home, I did some internet searches to hopefully find out what had happened at Bisti.  I came up with nothing.  Imagine that.  An entire church can burn down, and there’s not a single newspaper article about it.  The people who live here have so little, and to lose a building like this would be a tremendous loss, and yet no one in the outside world would ever know.

Earlier I mentioned BistiBadlands.com, but there’s another helpful resource with pictures and information about Bisti: AmericanSouthwest.net.  This is the site which describes the old buildings as an old trading post.

Once you’re done at the Bisti Badlands, continue south on Rte. 371.  There’s not much to excite you for at least an hour or two (even the small Native American communities near the road are depressing and disappointing).  You will cross the Continental Divide, although it isn’t very thrilling.  Eventually, there’s civilization again, at Grants, NM, which is where the next page begins.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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