Bisti Badlands

De-Na-Zin Wilderness - New Mexico

by Jay W. Sharp

Bisti Badlands

Bisti Badlands. Photo by muha04, Canva.

The first time I saw the Bisti Badlands – those phantasmogoric formations of earth and stone in northwestern New Mexico’s high desert lands – snow clouds shrouded the sky from horizon to horizon. They bleached the land of color, leaving it a deadeningly dull gray. A raw wind swept out of the north. Horned larks flashed in front of me like bits of tissue in a hurricane, only a few feet above the ground, disappearing into growths of desert grass.

Looking over Bisti Badlands

Overlooking Hoodoos at Bistirem

Badlands. Photo by Galyna Andrushko, Canva.

The Bisti – the Navajo word for badlands – lay as cold and morose as a Matthew Brady photograph of a Civil War battle scene, with corpses littering the field. I wondered what forces of nature had created the Bisti. It was eerie, more a dreamscape than an actual landscape.

Chilled and a little spooked, I left the Bisti and headed north, through the grayness, up State Highway 371, across snow-patched high desert land of clumped grass to Farmington, a red wine, and warmth.

The strange images of the Bisti remained in my mind’s eye, and on a sun washed day some weeks later, I returned with my wife, Martha, for another look. I wanted to see whether I had been dreaming.

In crystalline sunlight, we found, not a somber landscape of spooky lithic monuments standing like headstones in a gray, forgotten cemetery, but a natural sculpture garden of whimsical figures, an artist’s palette of earth colors. We felt the same sense of discovery and delight we experienced two years earlier, exploring Rodin’s sculpture garden and museum on the Left Bank in Paris.

After parking our vehicle at a small, graveled parking area, we hiked perhaps a mile across an open area known as the Gateway Wash into the heart of the Bisti, and we came upon enclaves of banded and sculpted sandstone which looked like gossamer draperies billowing in a gentle breeze. Spheroidal boulders perched precariously at the peaks of low hills. A field of stone formations was standing a few feet high and shaped like mushrooms. We found sandstone pedestals covered by shale plates, and beautifully rust-colored mounds divided by sinuous washes.

Alien Chair Formation at Bisti Badlands
The Alien Chair at Bisti Badlands. Photo by Sean Pavone, Canva.


On the ground, there lay pieces of petrified wood, as concentrated in places as the cobbles in the streets of some of the old Spanish Colonial villages in Mexico. Remarkably, petrified trunks lay where ancient trees fell, marking exactly where the great trees had stood.

In some examples of the petrified wood, we could see fossilized tree bark, even fossilized growth rings. In some instances, the preservation was so complete and detailed that I believe we could have seen fossilized cells had we been equipped with a microscope.

Petrified Wood

Petrified Wood at Bisti Badlands. Photo by Frank Fichtmüller, Canva.

Later, we would learn that the petrified wood comprised only part of an assemblage of plant and animal fossils, collectively, a stone record of a primeval past.

These strange fossils represent another world, one as alien to us today as the surface of another planet.

The Bisti takes you 70 million years back in time, when it was not a high desert with barren soil separating scattered patches of big sage, fourwing salt-bush and western wheatgrass, but rather a coastal rain forest of biological opulence.


Cypress-like conifers, palms and other plants towered perhaps 100 to 200 feet over the jungle floor. Interwoven treetops formed a canopy so dense it filtered out much of the sunlight. It trapped heat and humidity, creating a dark, clammy environment. Water dripped continuously from leaves overhead.

Dinosaurs such as the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex ruled the animal kingdom on land. Smaller reptiles such as snakes and lizards populated the undergrowth. Mammals, about the size of squirrels and somewhat like modern possums, struggled to survive, with no anticipation of some day ruling the earth.

Crocodiles held domain over the animal kingdom in the murky waters of the marshes and ponds and in the channels of huge and sluggish rivers. A profusion of other life forms, such as salamanders, shellfish, rays, frogs and turtles, filled their biological niches in this dim watery world.

If we can judge by modern rain forests, the primal Bisti rain forest represented a community of plant and animal life forms more complex and diverse than any other kind of land-based ecosystem on earth. It was a world far more exotic than anything that was imagined by Hollywood for the movie Jurassic Park.

For millions of years, this early, coastal rain forest marched back and forth in cadence with an advancing and retreating sea sometimes called the Great Western Interior Sea, which lay to the northeast. The rain forest thrived as an ecological system until the onset of a series of cataclysmic events.

In succession, the Age of Dinosaurs collapsed. The Age of Mammals began. The sea withdrew. The Rocky Mountain Range arose to the north and east, reversing the direction of drainage from northeast to southwest. Sedimentary deposits entombed the remains of the biologically rich rain forest world. Minerals replaced what had been living matter, petrifying plant and animal. Sediments compacted into sandstone and shale. Nature transformed rain forest biomass into 200 billion tons of coal and billions of cubic feet of natural gas – one of the most prolific sources of energy in the United States today.

Finally, the land form encasing the entombed rain forest – now a geologic stratum called the Fruitland Formation – arose. Erosion stripped away the Fruitland Formation’s sedimentary deposits in some areas such as the Bisti, exposing once more, after millions of years, the ancient rain forest, now frozen in stone.

Water and wind set about carving the sandstone into the exquisite and ever changing shapes we see today, constantly creating, then destroying their own masterworks. They sculpt those fanciful geologic forms called "hoodoos," which in the Bisti are sandstone pedestals capped by harder boulders or shale plates. Geologists call the sculpting process "differential erosion," which means, simply, that water and wind erode "soft" rocks like sandstone more rapidly than they erode "hard" rocks like ironstone or shale.

Meanwhile, coal deposits ignited and burned underground, searing the shale, turning it rust red. The shale, now exposed, adds the splashes of color to the Bisti.

Hoodoos at Bisti Badlands. Photo by Frank Fichtmüller, Canva.

The Bisti is a remarkable product of a series of geologic events, and it is an even more remarkable snapshot of the final days of the 200 million year reign of the dinosaurs.

The end came suddenly, as geologic time is measured, in one of the most profound changes in more than a quarter of a billion years of our planet’s history. Scientists have searched for an explanation for decades. The debate has often been acrimonious.


The demise of the dinosaurs, many scientists now believe, was triggered by a comet or asteroid, at least five miles in diameter, which struck the earth some 65 million years ago near the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It produced a 100 mile wide crater, which was discovered in 1990.

The Seal

The Seal Formation at Bisti Badlands. Photo by Wayne Pinkston Canva.

In a nightmarish scenario, the cosmic trespasser blew pulverized debris and possibly vaporized sulfur into the stratosphere, where a witches’ brew of dust and sulfuric acid could have remained suspended for decades. It would have reflected sunlight back into space, plunging the earth into a deep chill, somewhat as posited some years ago in Carl Sagan’s "nuclear winter" scenario of worldwide atomic warfare. Simultaneously, the energy from the collision may have caused monumental volcanic eruptions on the direct opposite side of the earth.

The event caused dramatic environmental changes. Dinosaurs failed to adapt. They died. The mammals did adapt. They achieved dominance. It is the way of nature.

The Bisti became a graveyard for dinosaurs, and it became a window on the world in which they lived. It is now one of the potential locations for testing theories for the passing of the dinosaurs.

Investigation could center on a search for the element iridium, which is rare on earth but abundant in comets and asteroids, like the object which blew itself to bits in the Yucatan. The presence of iridium in the rocks at the Bisti, as well as in rocks in other locations which could be dated to the same time period, would point to the collision as the trigger for what has been called The Great Dying – the end of the dinosaurs.

The six and two tenths square mile Bisti was formally designated as the Bisti Wilderness in the San Juan Basin Wilderness Protection Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan in 1984.

In a day, preferably in the spring or fall, you can hike into the heart of the area and enjoy the visual feast of the rock sculptures and rust colored hills. You can examine the fossils, especially petrified wood, at your feet. You can experience a sense of solitude, since the Bisti, open year round, attracts a total of only some 2,000 visitors for the entire year. You can backpack and camp overnight.

The Bureau of Land Management administers the Bisti and endeavors to maintain it as a wilderness. The BLM requires no permits. There are no water sources. For obvious reasons, the BLM forbids the collecting of fossils and discourages climbing on the fragile rock formations. For additional information, contact the BLM’s Farmington, New Mexico, Resource Area Office.

One of the few readily available sources of information is the book "Bisti," published in 1987 by the University of New Mexico Press. It encompasses the Bisti and nearby areas. It contains black and white photographs of the rock sculptures.

To reach the Bisti Badlands, travel thirty seven and a half miles south of Farmington, on State Highway 371. Turn east at BLM’s Bisti marker, drive two miles on a gravel road until you reach a "T." Turn north, drive two more miles on a gravel road until you reach the small parking area at the entrance to the Bisti.

You will discover a geology textbook, and a magical place to visit.



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