Bisti originates from the Navajo language (Bist-ta-hie) and means badlands. It is pronounced somewhere between Bis”tah” and Bis”tie”. Little visited and largely unknown, the Bisti Badlands is an amazingly scenic and colorful expanse of undulating mounds and unusual eroded rocks covering 4,000 acres, hidden away in the high desert of the San Juan Basin that covers the distant northwest corner of New Mexico. The badlands are administered by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), are free to enter, and are known officially as the Bisti Wilderness Area. Bisti and De-Na-Zin were merged 1996 creating the huge 45,000 acre Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. The access to both is close to each other, but to explore them you need to do this on two different days and for such reason I will treat them separately.
The area that includes the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness was once covered by an ancient sea, the Western Interior Seaway. As the water slowly receded, prehistoric animals survived on the lush foliage that grew along the many riverbanks. When the water disappeared it left behind a 1,400-foot-thick (427 m) layer of jumbled sandstone, mudstone, shale, and coal that lay undisturbed for 50 million years. 6,000 years ago the last ice age receded, exposing fossils and petrified wood, and eroding the rock into the hoodoos now visible.
The reason for Bisti’s fame probably derives from the so called “Egg Factory” that is a very tiny spot in the entire Wilderness Area. The uniqueness of this spot is somewhat comparable with the “Moving Rocks” at the Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park in California. However, the Bisti Badlands has much more to offer and it would be a real shame to get to this area with the sole proposition to photograph the “Egg Factory”. If hoodoos and badlands is your dream you will start feeling like Alice (on steroids) in Wonderland.
I was only once there so far, but I assure you that I just fell in love with it. Love at first sight! It is very remote and gives a feeling of solitude. You can explore it on foot in many different directions. There are no trails what enhances the feeling of surprise at every corner.
Visiting the Bisti takes a bit of preparation and planning because of its remotness. No permit is reqired (yet!). You are free to walk anywhere you want, as long as you do not climb on any delicate geological feature. Other people visiting the place after you also want to be enchanted by this truly unique mineral landscape.
Before you get there you need to do your homework. The place is remote and it might be very well that you will not find anyone there to help you out if some emergency of any nature confronts you.
Summer is not the time of the year to be there. It is to hot!!! Winter can be very interesting, but it will be risky, mainly if it rains. The soft clay turns into a messy thing. Your shoes will be weighing tons after a couple of steps and the chance to slip and fall on the mud is certain.
You should have some training in hiking, map reading, and using a compass. A GPS is OK, but do not forget to take a spare set of batteries with you. Do not rely only a GPS. It is a eletronic device and it can always fail on you! When using a GPS mark the location of your car before leaving it.
Always take bearings on tall landmarks that will help you to find your way back. Be sure to have YOUR 10 essentials, plus extra water and some energy bars. If you are returning to the car after sunset you should not forget the flashlight.
Getting to Bisti:
There are no signposts pointing the way to Bisti from any nearby towns, but the usual approach route is along NM 371 from Farmington. This heads south through wide open prairie land at the east edge of the great Navajo Nation lands.
There are two different routes to access the Bisti Badlands.
North Access: After 25.5 miles (41 km) or about 42 minutes on NM 371, counting once you crossed the bridge over the San Juan River, a historical marker to the right records the history of this area and to the left is the dirt road CR 7290 that gives you access to the North Bisti. Ignore the sign “No Access to Bisti Wilderness”. Drive for another 4 miles (6.5 km). First it is a dirt road and at the end just follow the tire marks on the ground until you reach a barbed wire fence stretching along the Hunter Wash. This is were the adventure begins. Do not forget to mark the location of your car on the GPS!
Crossing the fence is easy and follow the wash bearing right. After a 5 minute walk you will start seeing the first hoodoos. That is just the beginning. Enter and explore the area. You are off limits as long as you respect it by not leaving any signs of destruction behind you.
South Access: The main and south entrance to the badlands is 6.5 miles further down NM 371. Enter CR 7297 heading east (left). After about 3 miles (4.8 km) turn left and you will see after another mile (1.6 km) the parking lot. To the east, across the fence you will see Gateway Wash in its full extension. The wash itself does not have any attractions. These are encountered along the borders on each side of the wash. Your task is to explore these thoroughly and believe me, it is a never ending of surprises that will wait you behind every single corner.
As stated already above, the major and most saught attraction at this location is the “Egg Factory” or also known as the “Cracked Eggs”. These are located at the south side of the wash and it takes about 45 minutes walking from the car to get there (GPS: 36°16’02″N,108°13’26″W).
For further graphical instructions on how to get there you might click on the map situated at the bottom of this page.
Before you even consider starting to shoot I strongly recommend to scout through the entire area and discover the spots that atract you most. Mark them with GPS or by finding strong landmarks that will be helpful later on to find it again. Exploring the area might take up to an entire day, depending on how comprehensive you will do it. Try to imagine during the day the sun’s positioning at early morning hour and at sunset. This will help you to determine how the different geological features will appear at that time.
The ideal is to stay in the area at least for 2 days. Day one to explore and reconnaissence and day two to take the pictures, however bear in mind that it is impossible to hit all the good spots during the golden hour.
The “Egg Factory” should certainly be on your list and the ideal moment to be there for taking your photographs is at sunset and even after the sun is already gone but providing colors to the sky!
Be sure that you bring all your photographic equipment. There is not a favored lens. All lenses, wide-angle, mid-range and big zoom lenses can and will be used.
Last update: Oct. 17, 2010