I’m a geologist by training. So it comes as no surprise that I like taking photos of rocks. And no surprise I like taking trips to the American Southwest, which has some of the best rock formations in the world. Of all the rock exposures in the Southwest, the Bisti Badlands, perhaps, contains the best of the best. The Bisti Badlands are part of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM describes the wilderness as:
… a remote desolate area of steeply eroded badlands which offers some of the most unusual scenery found in the Four Corners region. Time and natural elements have etched a fantasy world of strange rock formations and fossils. It is an ever-changing environment that offers the visitor a remote wilderness experience.
And let me tell you, the BLM isn’t kidding with that description. The place is full of hoodoos, spires, and other badland features. You could spend a year to explore the place fully, but even then you wouldn’t be done. The landscape changes with each rain storm, as erosion creates new hoodoos and destroys others.
Bisti is fairly easy to get to. It is perhaps an hour south of Farmington, New Mexico, about 2 miles off (along a good gravel road) of highway NM 371. At least that gets you to the wilderness’ only amenity – a parking lot (two actually). That’s it – no campground, no picnic tables, no restrooms, no shade, no water; just a parking lot and a trail registry.
If you want to be there for the golden hours, you either have to drive in the dark or set up a primitive camp, which is what Tanya and I decided to do (more my decision than hers; I’m sure she would have rather slept in a motel than camping on a dried mud bed). We camped just off the gravel road, about 1/4 mile from the parking lot (see below). Not the best site, but it did allow me to get into the wilderness for some good light.
With a trail registry, you might think there would be trails. You’d be wrong. No trails either. This makes it somewhat difficult to navigate in the badlands. A GPS is recommended, especially if you want to find some of the most photogenic spots (GPS coordinates for some of the formations are available in Laurent Martes‘ book Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Colorado & New Mexico and at several websites, such as this map provided by Isabel and Steffen Synnatschke); and of course, I don’t own one. In my research about Bisti, several sources describe how easy it is to get lost there. Being a geologist, I usually don’t worry about getting lost (most geologists I’ve known, myself included, have a built-in sense of direction); but I thought it can’t hurt to have the topographic maps for the region, so I downloaded them before the trip and promptly forgot to bring them.
Undaunted, Tanya and I tried to follow the directions from the parking lot to some of the interesting formations listed in Martes’ guidebook. Since we weren’t planning on coming back until after sunset, Tanya was a bit concerned about getting lost, but I assured her we’d have no problem. And we didn’t get lost, but we did have trouble finding the formations described in the book. Luckily there are lots of photo opportunities besides the book’s listed attractions. However, next time I go there, I’ll bring a GPS.
We did stay out until sunset, then with darkness settling in, headed back to the car. It was fairly easy to find. Since we were there relatively close to the autumn equinox, the sun set almost due west. So I knew if we headed straight toward the sunset, we should find the road, if not the car, without problem. As we got close, the only other person there (another photographer) reached his car and turned on its lights – perfect, a guiding beacon for us! We thanked him for the light when we got back and talked about how hard it was to find noted landmarks. He was using the same book as us, and had a GPS, and still had problems (which made me feel a little better). However, he was spending several days in the area (driving out each day from Farmington), so I assume he eventually found the spots he wanted.
We were only there for one night. The next morning, I decided to photograph west of the road, which is described in the book as an area with interesting hoodoos that is impossible to miss. Sure enough, about a ten-minute walk west of the parking lot, it was hoodoo city! I communed with the rocks through sunrise and eventually headed back to help Tanya pack up.
Bisti is a fantastic place for landscape photography. If you go, take a hat (there’s no shade), take lots of water, and take a GPS (or at least remember that the sun sets in the west).