Archives for posts with tag: canyoneering
Sculpted rock formations in the Bisti Wilderness Area


The Bisti Wilderness offers pedestal rocks, balancing rocks, seemingly preposterous examples of cantilevered stone, fins, windows, hoodoos, slot canyons, coal seams, clinker, caves, broad desert expanses and views west to the Chuska Mountains and northwest to Arizona’s Carrizo Mountains. On warm winter days it may also include some snow melt, although water is usually scarce here. It does not, however, offer any trails. A GPS is strongly recommended!

Driving Directions:

  • Take Interstate-40 (I-40) to exit 53 Thoreau, between Gallup and Grants in eastern New Mexico.
  • Go north:
    • If you were traveling west from Grants on I-40 then after 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn right onto NM-371 North
    • If you were traveling east from Gallup on I-40 then after 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left. I didn’t check this turn, but from the maps it appears that the road might be signed as “NM-612”, “Bluewater Road” or “County Road 14”. Under any name, if you turn left and go under the highway then the road becomes NM-371.
  • After 70.1 miles on NM-371 turn right onto Road 7297 (which becomes gravel after about 30 yards). There was no formal road sign for Road 7297, but look for the large brown-and-tan sign for the Bisti Wilderness Area.
  • After 1.9 miles on Road 7297, at a T-intersection, turn left onto Road 7290. Again, the road is not formally signed, but there was a small and informal sign saying “← Bisti 0.9”.
  • After 0.9 miles on Road 7290 turn right into the trailhead.
Morning light on red rock near Thoreau

All the roads were in good shape on this date (despite puddles of snow-melt in the late afternoon). It should not be a problem bringing the family sedan. A heavy rain could result in problems since these roads have a large clay component.


Gravel pad of the trailhead

The trailhead is a large gravel pad with two covered picnic tables, trailhead signage and two vault toilets. There are no fees. There is space for about 20 cars here (with careful parking). On a winter Sunday there were 12 cars with plenty of leftover parking space. There is no potable water and, most of the year, no water at all.


  • starting elevation: 5710 feet
  • ending elevation: 5870 feet
  • net elevation: 160 feet
  • distance: 8.0 miles (your milage will vary!)

Hike Meander Description:

Seams of sand and coal

No exact solution exists for the problem of finding the best path between canyon features. The Badlands invite you to relax away from the usual job of trail-finding and to blunder around at random. Serendipity rules. (Never forgetting to track the direction back to the car). My own technique was to go up onto the rim of the this shallow canyon and scout for something that is (1) nearby, (2) odd, photogenic or otherwise attractive and (3) somewhat to the east. Once you have a target in sight then try to get there.

Crumbling soil walls in Alamo Canyon

Large portions of the canyon wall are made up of material that might be described as ludicrously weak rock or, in other places, unexpectedly competent soil. Avoid the broad and steep surfaces as bootprints degrade them quickly. Instead, follow the gully bottoms as they carve into the walls. The shallow grade and compacted soil in gully bottoms resist footfalls. Some gullies do dead-end, but since there are parallel gullies everywhere you only need to back up and find another approach.

Mushroom rocks

A common feature of the Badlands are the “mushroom” rock formations. These wind sculptures rarely rise higher than hip-height. The stem-and-cap arrangement arises from the limited heights to which sand and dust is carried by the wind. The stem gets hit by a lot of sand, the cap sees relatively little. It helps if there is a layer of wind-resistant rock on top of a layer of softer rock – possibly explaining why these inorganic toadstools seem to grow in such organic clusters.

Part of a petrified log

Petrified wood is also common in the Badlands. The entire Wilderness Area has been characterized as a fossilized swamp, in which coal (mineralized peat) and petrified wood might be predicted. The bark on the example shown above is very well preserved. So much so that there may be some fossilized lichen on display as well. By far the most abundant type of petrified wood are the flat wood chips seen scattered about the log. Eruptions of these chips can be found in many places in the canyon.


A distinct reddish rock lies in piles at other points. The product of an ancient, subterrainean coal fire, clinker is coal ash that has been fused together. It looks very much like pottery shards and gets its name from the sound made when these fragments are jostled together. When you start off from the trailhead you might note a pair of reddish mounds about a half mile to the east (another useful navigation aid). These mounds are covered in clinker.

Hawk’s nest on a rock shelf off of a tall rock fin

One final item to look for as you explore the canyon is a pile of branches mysteriously lodged on a cantilevered rock shelf extending from a tall fin. Evidently some remarkably stout hawks managed to hoist these boughs onto the shelf. Given the complete absence of animal life on this date (and the nearly complete lack of vegetation) it is hard to imagine how they justified the calorie expenditure. It is near this nest where the main bed of Alamo Canyon begins to fork into numerous upstream cuts. Don’t let that stop you! Caves and slot canyons (and much more) await you in those cuts.


Random walker


It is not hard to navigate along the canyon bottom, but a GPS would be a very good thing to have if you are temporarily “bewildered”. Take note of the Chuska Mountains to the west (and a power plant in the middle distance) since these are rough guides back to to the parking lot.

So many geological processes are revealed so clearly that this trip might transform you in to a geologist. You’ve been warned! Take a look at some of links below, as fore-knowledge of these processes can take a good day and make it a great day.


The Bisti Hiker website has many useful pages, including photos of landmark features (with their coordinates) and an annotated map. That author notes that the Bisti (described here) and the De-Na-Zin were once separate wilderness areas but now are simply different trailheads for one very large area.

The Bisti Badlands is a relatively celebrated site. If you are looking for a less traveled option then you might consider the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area. The Atlas Obscura site characterizes it as “a martian planet”, “obscure” and “remote”. There’s some difficult road, but it looks very interesting.

A student in the introductory geology course at San Juan College, Neykar Kotyk, has written such an accessible term paper on the Bisti Badlands that the folks in Aztec New Mexico have posted it on their website. Some of the terminology is a little opaque for non-geologists, but it will give you lots to think about as you tour the Wilderness. Give it a quick read.

The site, “TheWave” has some commentary and a great gallery of photos.

StavIsLost also has numerous, fun photos. It is mentioned, especially, because the writer confesses an unstoppable urge to take photographs. You will know exactly how he felt once you’re there yourself!

FirefallPhotography lists tips meant specifically for photographers. There is good advice here – some explicit (bring a GPS) and some implicit (the nighttime images are terrific).

Castle Rocks in Last Chance Canyon


This is a desert jewel. Paved roads lead to the trailhead and from there the trail wanders into a dramatic canyon where water flows. Enjoy greenery, a myriad of birds, hoodoos, riverine meanders, vertical canyon walls and blue skies. The turn-back point described here is purely arbitrary. Make the hike as long or as short as your moment supports.

A massive flood in 2013 closed the Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area for a long time. Funding was eventually found to clear the immediate damage and re-open the Area. This history may explain why the first few miles of the Last Chance Canyon trail are obvious and clearly signed. At about 2.6 miles, where the trail makes a broad swing to the south, the tread becomes considerably more ambiguous.

Driving Directions:

This hike is located a little east of Carlsbad, NM in the extreme southeast corner of the state.

  • Drive Interstate-25 (I-25) to exit 139 (about 8 miles south of Socorro).
  • After 0.5 miles on the exit ramp, as the ramp goes beneath I-25, the road becomes US-380 East. Reset your odometer. (This transition is not signed, and it may be that the official transition is not until the road crosses US-1 about 0.5 miles ahead).
  • After 107.5 miles on US-380 East, at a T-intersection, go left onto combined US-70 East/US-380 East. (There are signs for US-70 just before the intersection. If they mention US-380 I missed it).
  • After 43.5 miles on US70/US-380, at a traffic light, go right onto Relief Route (signed).
  • After 7.6 miles on Relief Route, at a T-intersection, go right onto US-285 South (signed).
  • After 59.4 miles on US-285 turn right onto NM-137 South (signed). In places this road is signed as Queen Highway for the town of Queen, NM.
  • After 22.8 miles on NM-137 turn right onto Sitting Bull Falls Road. There is a sign saying “Eddy County 409” just a short ways down this road.
  • After 7.1 miles turn right into the paved trailhead.

Some of these milages are taken from Google, please treat them as approximations. (It snowed hard the evening that I traveled down to the trailhead, taking my attention away from tracking mile markers and odometer readings!).



The trailhead has a paved parking area and a covered picnic table with a trash barrel. It is the first such parking spot along Sitting Bull Falls Road. There are no toilets or water here. There was no fee for parking. The Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area, just up the road, has water, toilets and fees (currently $5.00, but check here). There is a gate across the road just past the trailhead, so if you drive into the SBFRA then make sure you drive out before the gate is shut.


Note on map: the yellow line shows the main trail. The short orange line indicates a side excursion on cattle paths.

  • starting elevation: 4450
  • ending elevation: 3830
  • net elevation: 880 feet
  • milage: 3.6 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

View into Wilson Canyon from Last Chance Canyon

Trail 226 (signed) jumps straight up the canyon wall from the parking area, soon turns northeast (right, going in) and contours across the wall to reach the mouth of Lost Chance Canyon. A brisk descent brings you to a fence in the canyon bottom. Take note of where the trail enters the bottom – I couldn’t find it on return. The tread follows the fence for 100 yards to the fence end, then sojourns out in to mid-canyon. This is cattle terrain and the next half mile is a celebration of the Cow Pat Polka. That song ends at 0.6 miles where a sign directs you west towards paired and nearly vertical canyon walls.

Rise to vertically walled section

Here the waters of the canyon rise to the surface. Flood-tossed tree trunks, branches, boughs and twigs lie in neatly delineated piles that often block the trail. Cross the stream bed to the right side (looking upstream) at first opportunity. The remnants of an old ranch road appears and fades away; finally terminating at the mouth of Robert’s Canyon. The views are classic. The sun-blasted canyon walls, barren of vegetation, contrast with the verdant canyon bottom. Semi-detached, cone-profiled meanders tower above you like castles. The water flows smoothly past your feet. That water is somewhat plagued with algae, bring a good filter if you plan on using it.

Algae-laced water

Thorny vegetation abounds in this region. Some of the prickly pear cactus display enormous pads and these cacti grow in huge clusters. More solitary forms of columnar cactus display a density of spines that resembles fur. The plant that catches the most attention, and the most flesh, is a spindly shrub. Possibly the New Mexican Locust, this bush rises to mid-thigh, exhibits medium-gray bark on a half-dozen stems and these branch into a haze of twigs. Each node on every twig is graced with a pair of short, stout, curved and opposite thorns. Those thorns carry a money-back guarantee for ripping pant legs in outward trip and gouging the exposed skin on the return trip. Spotting these plants is quickly learned skill.

Brambles thorns and thickets

The tread crosses to the inside of a huge bend where the canyon turns to the south. It is here that the tread quality begins to degrade. Views open to a gigantic canyon wall directly in front of you and asks, “north or south?”. Unfortunately the trail chooses to disappear right at this point. The correct answer, it turns out, is to continue following the bend to the south.

Bosque Brush Bash

The bend will take you into a dead bosque – a long row of silver snags are all that’s left of the huge, old trees that once graced the canyon bottom. Their skeletal remains are now wreathed by dense, thorny shrubs. On this trip I opted to rise up on the left wall of the canyon (going in), where the previously mentioned thorny-twig plants grew in abundance but with better separation. After a quarter mile the snags disappear and you should return immediately to the canyon bed. Watch for a tall boulder, crowned with a cairn, on the opposite side of the canyon (right side, going in) where the trail leaves the bed and rises on the west facing wall. The trail rises quickly to a mellow shelf with a distinct track.

[Side note: on this date my phone died after just 3 hours. So, no more photos for this hike. Sincere apologies! I earlier recommended the CarryMap app, but since that installation my phone has rapidly lost power when it is out of cell tower range. This points to (but does not prove) CarryMap as the culprit.]

Hoodoos near canyon rim

There is only one further thing to mention about the trail. The mellow shelf with the obvious tread goes about 0.6 miles south and then swings sharply to the west. There the shelf cliffs out. To avoid this, watch the tread for a point where someone has left a 10-foot long line of white rocks curving uphill. Scout uphill, looking for micro-cairns and the faintest approximations of a trail. As you rise to the point where the canyon swings west this high tread finally becomes much more obvious. (The orange stub on the map shows where I stepped over the line of rocks and remained on the shelf. At the time it seemed reasonable as the lower tread was obvious and even cairned in spots).

The high trail is a tight-rope walk along the wall of the canyon. Creep along, taking special care where runoff-deposited riprap lies mounded on the tread. Don’t forget to stop and stare at the waters flowing 100 feet below you. Study the canyon walls beyond. Take in those classic blue skies. Welcome to a walking definition of “gorgeous terrain”.

On this date I noticed some dark clouds rolling in and turned back at about noon. Judging from the images on Google Maps you should be able to continue for at least two more miles. There are few desert features more intriguing than this canyon. Have a ball.


Do this hike!

This is a cold hike in winter. The canyon walls shadow the canyon bed and cold winds blew persistently. I was perfectly comfortable in my puffy jacket and wool hat, but surprised to find that I needed them for the entire day. Of course, in the summertime a trip along a south-facing canyon wall is going to be ultra-toasty. Prepare for temperature extremes.

There are plenty of cattle along the waterway. You will want to filter this water before using.

Expect to do some scouting along the way.

In researching the hike I noticed news articles from several different years that describe different trailhead closures due to flooding. Flash flooding seems to be a big concern, check the weather before going.


With the short day I missed the waterfalls in Sitting Bull Falls, that’s a shame!

A PDF file with a valuable map of the trails in the SBFRA and a link to GPX file (for your GPS) can be found here. That GPX file traces the tread from the lower trailhead (described here) to the trailhead at the upper end of the canyon. I found that I could download it as an XML file and still open it with Garmin BaseCamp.

Rick at BestHikes has some great photographs and endorses the Last Chance Trail as one of the best hikes in North America.

The driving directions provided here take you to the mouth of Last Chance Canyon. There is a separate trailhead near the upper end of the canyon, but that involves taking back country roads that are described as rough and require a high-clearance vehicle. Such a description, with a brief but useful writeup of the canyon can be found at SummitPost.

01 View into the canyon near the start


The Little Dry Creek Trail rises through spectacular canyon terrain on the wild west side of the Mogollon Mts. Despite its name, the water in the creek bed was flowing cheerfully on this post-monsoon date. A sign at the trailhead says the trail is abandoned, but it looks as though someone has put a great deal of recent effort into keeping the path open for the first three miles – to the point where you first see trunks charred by of 2012 Whitewater Baldy fire. The older maps show that the trail used to continue upward to Windy Gap, which once made for a nice 2000-foot gain. Unfortunately the higher terrain is deeply littered with debris from the fire and is now home to remarkably thorny brush. It has to be admitted that I did not find the upward continuation of the trail. Most people, I think, will want to have a mellow day in the gorgeous lower canyon lands and turn back where the first charred trunks appear. The more adventurous will want to wear ballistic fiber gaiters and maintain a high degree of pace patience. 

Driving Directions:

  • In Silver City NM, starting at the junction of US-180/NM-90, go west on US-180. In Silver City the street signs call these roads “Silver Heights Blvd” and “Hudson Street”, respectively.
  • After 50.5 miles on US-180, past mile marker 63, go right onto Sacaton Road (becomes gravel). 
  • After 2.9 miles on Sacaton Road make a left onto Little Dry Creek Road (signed as Forest Service Road 196). You might be expecting a fork if you’re looking at Google Maps, but the junction looks much more like a T-intersection.
  • After 3.4 miles on Dry Creek Road, at its end, park at the trailhead.

EDIT: the Sacaton Road was re-graded sometime in December. As of 12/25/2018 the road was in quite good shape. The following “original comment” is being left in place to warn drivers that the road can be rough.

The Sacaton Road [was] in poor shape. Fist-sized talus lies strewn across the road in many places and there are sudden dips where the numerous small washes cross over the road. My low-slung Camry made it, but family sedan drivers will want to drive very slowly at each wash crossing. Fortunately, Dry Creek Road is in much better shape. 


02 the Mighty Camry at Dry Creek Trailhead

Kiosk backing the Mighty Camry

The trailhead is just a wide gravel pad with an information kiosk at the end of Little Dry Creek Road. There is no water, trash receptacles or water. There should be little competition for parking space, but you should try to leave space so that folks pulling horse trailers can turn around.


The map above has a red waypoint marker to show where the trail turns away from the stream bed to ascend the west-side wall (on your left, ascending). The blue markers indicate earlier trail features that may be useful in identifying the departure point.

  • start elevation: 6280
  • ending elevation: 7720
  • net elevation: 1440 feet
  • Distance: 4.2 miles (one way)

(A note on blogging conventions: most of the earlier posts made explicit mention of the USGS map (or maps) that cover the trail. This is beginning to seem like a disservice as other mapping options now seem better suited to hiking. Hikers should look into online options such as CalTopo. I haven’t yet used any of the other services, but many online commenters make favorable mention of AllTrails or Open Street Maps as well ).

Hike Description:

03 flood warning

Little Camping Next 3 Miles!

The trail begins immediately to the right of the information kiosk. You will note a bright yellow sign to the left of the kiosk warning that flooding occurs and that camping in flood plains is not recommended. The canyon bottom is narrow, the canyon walls are steep and you will find little camping space outside of this essentially continuous flood plain. The trail ascends for the first quarter mile on an aging and rock-strewn two-track. At the top is a terrific view towards West Baldy and the large folds of weathered rock that conceal this enormous canyon. Drink in the view and continue forward as the two-track dives towards the canyon bed. There isn’t much room for cattle in the canyon bottom so it seems unlikely that ranchers would have developed this road. This two-track may be a product of the generally unsuccessful effort to find mineral wealth in the Mogollon Mountains. 

02 an intrusion of hard rock nearly damming Dry Creek

Intrusion of hard rock, left side of photo

The two-track reforms into a single track path at the canyon bottom. Immediately ahead is an enormous curtain of hard rock that almost dams the creek. The stream beats the seam, however, and water has sawn a narrow slot right through the formation. The trail builders have found a way up the west wall of the canyon (to your left on ascent) to take you safely past this barrier. This establishes a noticeable pattern on the trail. It will amble along peaceably and then suddenly lurch towards the sky to surmount the next waterfall. 

05 waterfall across a hard intrusion

One of many waterfalls in Dry Creek

The creek meanders considerably and the steep outside wall of each bend is hostile to the intent of trail engineers. Consequently, the trail displays a creek-leaping tendency each time a new inside-bend presents itself. It was possible to ascend dry footed on this date, but in wetter seasons it could be a challenge. As mentioned there is a pattern of waterfalls where harder rock intrudes. You may find it worth while to head upstream, off-trail for a short distance, to investigate some of these pretty falls and their deep pools. It can be chilly on an autumn morning. The sun does not reach the canyon bottom until late in the day. Dense stands of pinion pines and scrub oak (Arizona White Oak, making a cross-boundaries appearance) provide further shade for the first two miles of the hike.

06 abandoned mining cabin

Miner’s Cabin

At about two miles you will find a weather beaten,  cabin, falling into ruin. This may be the upper limit of where pack animals could reach and the most convenient place to drop off mining supplies. Building roads and erecting cabins is hard work, testimony to the persistence of those seeking a living in this rugged landscape. Maps indicate that one old mine, the Maverick Prospect, might be found on the east wall above this cabin.

06 water to sky

Canyon Bed to Canyon Rim

From time to time the walls angle steeply back and admit a little sunlight to the creek. In such places the trail warms up and the vegetation thrives. You may get peek-a-boo views of the canyon ahead, where towering rock walls (300 feet high? 600?) will cast the trail back into cool canyon gloom. These are the places where you will see most of the animal sign. There was bear scat on the trail and occasional evidence of elk. At 2.4 miles from the trailhead you will note that the pinyon pine that dominated the lower route has given way to enormous ponderosa pine.

08a Massive cliff flank of West Baldy

Peek-a-boo view to major canyon wall

A mighty wall of rock descends from the flanks of West Baldy Mountain to the east side of the stream bed, and it is chiefly this wall that you will have seen from those earlier peek-a-boo views. Before reaching the foot of this wall, at about 2.8 miles from the trailhead and just before a prominent waterfall, watch for the tread to depart sharply uphill. The trail ascends on the east side (right side, looking up-canyon) and makes a switchback or two. Looking up this eastern cut you will see a large hoodoo high above. This is a clear sign that you are nearing the point where the old trail diverged from the canyon bottom.

A short distance further, at 3.0 miles, come to the end of the cleared portion of the trail. Here you will see the first evidence of fire damage along the trail. There is a camping spot with a fire-ring on a protected shelf beside the trail. This is where the maps show the old Little Dry Creek Trail departing from the stream bed and clambering along above the bed for about a quarter mile, then entering a side cut. This side cut (possibly called Rainwater Canyon) leads to Windy Gap on the ridge. Satellite images show a very obvious tread once you get about 100 feet above the canyon bed, but below the trail is screened by the Ponderosa and Douglas fir that dominates near the water.

08 Mogollon Ridge from turnback point

View to the ridgeline of the Mogollon Mountains

Frankly, I missed the point where the trail departed the canyon bottom and simply continued uphill along the stream bed. The terrain is as wild as any I’ve seen and, despite the fire, quite beautiful. It is markedly more difficult hiking. Part of the difficulty is due to the vegetation that has grown up in the years since the fire. Thorny, tough and dense, it covers holes in the ground and screens the lurking piles of burn debris. Navigation is easy in the canyon bottom but your pace will be slow. Look for short stretches where Little Dry Creek has scrubbed away plants and dirt alike, providing a sidewalk-like path on naked rock. Beware! Ice on this rock can persist all day long. In other places short stretches of animal trail can ease your passage markedly. I turned back after reaching 4.2 miles and having found clear views to the main ridgeline of the Mogollon Mountains. A great day, even though my gaiters will never be the same!


10 Author in hunting season attire

Author in hunting season attire

The trailhead is only 6.3 miles from US-180, but don’t let that fool you. This is wilderness. Bring a shovel and perhaps a bow saw in your car, so that you can handle any minor issues that may occur on the roads leading to the trailhead. A single thunderstorm could create real problems.

I suspect that Little Dry Creek really is dry most of the year. Bring plenty of water. I went through one liter and that was fine for a pre-Thanksgiving day, but in warmer weather you will need a lot more. The Mogollon ridge line can be very dry, so if you are heading up there be extra careful about your supplies.

From the trail the miner’s cabin appears to be in good shape (for an untended “historic place”) but it is not so very good that it couldn’t fall on you. Moreover, it probably houses a population of mice and in New Mexico there is a genuine concern with mice as carriers of hanta virus.

In this deep canyon cell phone service may be non-existent. Let people know where you are going and when you expect to return.

The shade from rock and vegetative sources may make this a nice warm season hike, particularly if you are going to stay in the lower stretches of the canyon.


The Casitas de Gila Nature Blog has an interesting discussion of the trail and its link to mining history in New Mexico and a separate post describing some other historical aspects and the geology of the region.

Doug Scott Art has a very enthusiastic review of the hike (this blog is a terrific resource on the slot canyons and waterfalls in New Mexico).