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Bisti Wilderness: Explore Alien Landscapes

Durango is famed, in part, for its unbelievable access to diverse terrain; from deserts to rivers, valley meadows to alpine peaks, there are ample environments to explore. Set your eyes past the iconic, however, and you can discover remarkable alien landscapes that seem to defy classification.

Just over an hour-and-a-half away, in New Mexico, the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness may qualify among the most extraterrestrial destinations you can find. Featuring eerie hoodoos, sedimentary pillars formed through weathering, Bisti (Bis-tie) offers unique opportunity to explore and photograph, if you so choose, truly bizarre landscapes

And although they aren’t necessarily alien themselves, the Bisti Wilderness is renowned for its dinosaur fossils which belong to species unique to Bisti, according to a 2010 video interview with BLM Paleontology Coordinator Sherrie Landon.

In 2015, New Mexico’s KRQE News 13 reported that the National Guard extracted 70 million-year-old Pentaceratops fossils, including the only found baby Pentaceratops fossils to-date, that were discovered in 2011.

While it’s possible to come across fossils, among other tantalizing carriables, during expeditions into the Bisti Wilderness, collection of these natural treasures is prohibited. In typical fashion, take only pictures and leave only footprints.

"Time and natural elements have etched a fantasy world of strange rock formations made of interbedded sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal, and silt." - Bureau of Land Management

We sent our resident photographer, Cole Davis, to explore the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness with his camera. Joined by his wife and dog, Bear, Davis spent a day exploring with his camera.

Journey into the Wilderness

Bisti Wilderness near the South Trailhead

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If you ever dreamed about visiting another alien-like world as a child, or read too many Calvin and Hobbes comic books, then visiting the Bisti Badlands will be a dream come true.

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The hoodoos are watching as Camille and Bear make their way through the trail-less wilderness.

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The Great Pyrenees dog (Bear) in all of his fluffy glory is seen strolling through what could be the Planet Mars. The oranges, reds, blacks, and browns pop against the blue skies of New Mexico, making Bisti look more like a color-filled wonderland than a dead wilderness.

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This winged-like Hoodoo formations looked straight out of a science fiction movie.

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A large garden of Alien-like hoodoo formations surrounds in every direction, located in the North East from the South Trailhead.

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Climbing into another world, Cole and bear are mount the top of one of the desert lookouts. In my experience, when lost it's always a great idea to find a high advantage point to gain your bearings.

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Camille and Bear hike near the main parking lot in what could be their next rock 'n roll album cover.

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Camille and Bear take a break from the long hike in the eerie dry wilderness.

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Taken near Flat Top arch photo area, Camille and Bear play on the Hoodoos high above the Bisti Wilderness.

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Bear blends in among 4 foot tall hoodoos, waiting to explore the next mysterious area in the badlands.

 

We decided to check out the dinosaur graveyard for ourselves and realized we were vastly underprepared for the hiking involved. There are two major geological formations found in the wilderness, the Fruitland Formation and the Kirtland Formation. We explored the Fruitland Formation as it was closest to the parking area. After arriving we quickly realized that there are no trails and no trail map. It wasn’t until after leaving that I found this extremely helpful map that can be downloaded so access is available without phone service.

Without a map, we didn’t make it very far into the 60 square miles of wilderness, but the wild sandstone forms, spires and hoodoos (sculpted rock) at the front of the park kept us on our toes.

When to Visit and Where to Camp

Bisti Badlands Wilderness is located at around 6000 ft. and it is too cold to visit during Nov-April, but just about perfect in May and early June. If you plan on spending a few days exploring the massive 45,000-acre wilderness, you should visit the Farmington BLM office so that you're not making the 35-mile drive from Farmington and back each day. According to BLM rangers, you can camp for free right in the Bisti parking area for up to 14 days with no permit required. If you are camping, you could take a note out of famous Durango photographer Wayne Pinkston’s book and capture some long exposure shots of the Hoodoos at night.

Photography and Hiking

If you only have one day, I suggest you begin an hour before dawn at the North Parking lot with a two-mile hike to the Conversing Hoodoos section. The two alien formations light up beautifully at sunrise. You can also capture excellent photos during the blue hour--the hour or so before sunrise or after sunset. Hiking is pretty easy on the flat dry terrain, but you have to take care not to get lost out there. Get yourself off the flats and into the maze of canyons and things start to all look the same. Be sure to bring loads of water as well, it can get very hot and it’s astoundingly dry.

After an hour or so at the Conversing Hoodoos, be sure to check out the Rock Garde and visit the Elegant Hoodoo. 

If you are like me and just want to take a day trip to explore the couple mile wash around the parking area in the afternoon, you will experience beautiful reds and oranges. I doubt you will be disappointed if you don’t make it to the hidden features in the area.

If you follow the interactive map here and are physically able to hike all day you can find many of the popular hoodoos and arches, mainly named after their shapes: The Wings, Ostrich, Seal, Dragon, Pedestal, Knights, Bird of Prey are just a few of the well-known formations. One of the most sought after spots to locate is called the Egg Factory or Alien Eggs, though we didn't make it that far into the wilderness area. These rounded sandstone formations have a unique weathering pattern and really do appear to be alien in nature.

End a perfect sunset with the Cracked Eggs features, certainly among the most alien formation in Bisti and a popular spot for evening and night-time shoots.

While the vibrant reds and oranges during our daytime expedition were incredible, experiencing the blue hour just before or after sunset is definitely at the top of our to-do list for our next visit to Bisti.

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