Sculpted rock formations in the Bisti Wilderness Area

Overview:

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.

Trailhead:

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.


Data:

  • 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.

Clinker

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.

Recommendations:

Random walker

Go!

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 east (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.

Links:

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).