Toward the upper, northwestern corner of New Mexico lies the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area. It is a rolling landscape in the badlands that offers some rather unusual scenery. In short, it is one of the closest visuals of a mysterious alien planet or a fictional fantasy world as one can actually visit here on earth.
At its highest point, the Wilderness is about 6,500 feet above sea level today. The badlands hover below around 200 to 400 feet from the top in the surrounding plains.
Bistahí loosely translates to mean “among the adobe formations” or “a large area of shale hills” in the Navajo dialect, And, De-Na-Zin, from the Navajo Dééł Náázíní, means “Standing Crane.”
The U.S. established this 45,000-acre Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in 1984. Above all, it is a desolate area with a steeply eroded landscape and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In 2019, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act expanded the wilderness area by an additional 2,250 acres.
Over 70 million years ago, the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness was a river delta on the western shore of an ancient sea covering much of New Mexico. However, as time went on and the water receded, the shoreline turned into swamps and ponds, producing a buildup of organic material and ash from an ancient volcano. As the water completely disappeared over time, the area became an undisturbed, 1,400-foot layer of sandstone, mudstone, shale, and even coal. Subsequently, about 25 million years ago, this sedimentary layer uplifted along with the Colorado Plateau.
Most importantly, erosion shaped these fantastic features of the modern Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness landscape. The highest points remain grassy. Below the grass, the years of whipping wind and moving water carved out the fantastic landscape. All the more rigid materials reside above the layer of ash. The remaining hoodoos formed from the erosion create striking stone pillars, pinnacles, spires, and pedestals.
Visiting the Area
Reaching the Bisti Badlands is a day trip from a campground. But, be aware there are no services within the wilderness area. There is no water or shade and the high temperatures in the summer pose a severe risk. Also, the weather changes rapidly in this part of the world. There are often thunderstorms and flash floods. Trails are primitive and not marked well.
Warnings aside, camping in the New Mexico badlands could be the best way to hike into the wilderness. Information on free camping in the BLM-managed surrounding area is available here.