Archives for posts with tag: hiking in new mexico
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.

This is going to different from the usual route description. If you are looking for hiking or scrambling routes then please click on the “Hikes By Name” menu item from the menu above and search through that list.

Yesterday I followed the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) from Forest Road 234 up into the Magdalenas, aiming for South Baldy. Up pretty high I twisted my ankle. It was not a big deal, but I was concerned enough to look for a bail-out route and followed a side trail back west. Regrettably, that trail took me across private land and my presence made the owner very unhappy. To be explicit, I do not mean “crazy, shouting, arm waving” anger but rather a grim, deep, gut-churned sensation on the part of an innocent guy who was wronged. To his eternal credit, he heard me out, spoke eloquently of the high value of his privacy and then gave me a ride back to my car. A nice guy, in fact.

So today I spent some time looking into the issue of avoiding such situations. How do you know where public domains end and where private land begins? I spoke with people both at the Magdelana Ranger station and at the BLM Field Office in Socorro. The BLM, particularly, has maps of land use borders that seem very useful. They also suggested an app, called CarryMap.

EDIT: In the first iteration of this post I gave a strong recommendation to CarryMap. Regrettably, I have to withdraw that recommendation (at least, for use on an iPhone). In my experience CarryMap quickly drains the battery whenever the iPhone is out of direct cell-tower reach. This is a pity. If I had had that data on this hike I could have done a much better job at picking a route out. If I find a suitable replacement I will update this post again.

This blog has mentioned previously that we hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, trail runners, backcountry skiers, birders and hunters benefit enormously from the generosity of New Mexico land owners. It never hurts to give back. We benefit when we make obvious, explicit efforts to respect the their rights.