Badlands are just that: Bad lands to live in or travel through. And yet, they are some of the most beautiful and fascinating lands to explore and photograph.
Characterized by rugged, exposed terrain in which there is little water, little or no vegetation and extreme temperatures, badlands feature colorful mesas, canyons, ravines, gullies, buttes and other unusual rock formations such as hoodoos and spires. Many of the most notable badlands can be found throughout the western United States, as well as in Canada and Europe.
One of my favorites is a relatively small area—the Bisti (pronounced Bis-tie) Badlands, which is the western section of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in northwestern New Mexico. Like other badlands, it features colorful land formations created over millions of years of accumulation of various sediments which have then been eroded by wind and water. You’ll see all shades of white, red, brown, gray, orange, black and even purple representing coal, silt, shale, mudstone and sandstone. Roughly 70 million years ago, this land was a river delta along the edge of an inland sea, more akin to a rain forest environment than the high desert that it is today. It lies more than 6,000 feet above sea level—a desert of fossils and petrified logs, with few living plants and animals, though I did encounter a rattlesnake poised to strike before I even left the parking lot. (Fortunately, it was the only one I saw and my unusual reaction must have surprised it just long enough for me to escape—running, hopping and cursing across the parking lot. I’m not usually prone to such drama, but had not quite recovered emotionally from a copperhead bite just a couple of years before. To this day, I still jump at the sight of an unidentified stick.)
The best time to visit the Bisti Badlands is spring or fall, which, of course, means I went in August. Temperatures exceeded 100 degrees and, other than my travel companion, there wasn’t another soul in sight. I traveled with a young friend, who gets around a lot faster than I do—particularly when I have a camera and tripod in tow. In this heat, we were forced to limit our time to a few hours of exploring—not nearly long enough to see some of the most unique formations such as the “cracked eggs” which were located farther away. Of course, that gives me incentive to return in cooler weather, which I am eager to do.
There are no trails through the Bisti Badlands—just mounds, mesas, boulders, ravines, pillars, pedestals and hoodoos. It is easy to get confused. Although you can see the parking lot from atop the mesas, finding your way back to your car can be a challenge as you wander into the maze-like ravines, which are often steep and winding. GPS tracking helped us retrace our footsteps and I recently stumbled across GPS directions for a 4-plus-hour hike through Bisti that covers most of the highlights (though I have not followed it). If you are serious about taking landscape photographs, plan on spending the day. And no matter how long you are there, be sure to carry plenty of water. This is the high desert, where it can be extremely hot and dry during the day and bitter cold at night. There are no facilities, water sources or even trash cans at the parking area, which is located two miles down a gravel road. And although you can pick up GPS, the odds of getting a cell signal are slim, so don't travel alone. Besides, you need someone to see this with you—to share in the excitement of discovery and be equally amazed by the otherworldly nature of the place.
Access is via gravel Road 7297, approximately 35-40 miles south of Farmington on NM 371. Look for the sign and follow the road approximately two miles to the parking lot. Although this area receives very little rain, the roads may be impassable when it does or during the snowmelt, so keep an eye on the weather. Remember, these are called badlands for a reason.