New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands is one of those places that most folks have never heard of but landscape photographers idolize as an ‘icon’. So why is that?
I guess we could start with the fact that the whole area was once the shore of an ancient sea which covered much of New Mexico 70 million years ago. And…so what, how does that make Bisti cool? Well, the answer lies in what happened after the dinosaurs (including the “Bisti Beast”) had their time in the sun Erosion over the millennia on Bisti’s unique geology created vast areas of absolutely bizarre and delightful rock formations unique on earth.
So why isn’t it famous and packed with tourists? Well, first of all Bisti is way off the beaten path…about an hour from the nearest hotel. Plus, this isn’t a ‘pull up and whip out the iPhone’ kinda place. Once you park you have to hike across a desert for at least 45 minutes. Yes, I said desert…which gets a bit toasty in the summer with temperatures soaring over 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius). Oh…and did I mention that there isn’t a visitor’s center, or bathrooms, or water, or food, or shade or trails, even decent cell coverage for that matter?
Maybe that’s why you’d have to be a crazy photographer to consider Bisti a “must see.” But to be honest, even though landscape photographers say they love Bisti, you won’t find many that have actually been there. I was certainly guilty…it had been on my ‘bucket list’ for ten years or more…but I had still only seen photographs of it.
But last month all the planets aligned and I finally found myself hiking out into the Bisti Badlands in the cool fall weather. So after a decade of anticipation, how did it measure up? In this blog I’ll discuss my impressions and share photos so you can see for yourself. If you are a photographer and plan to visit Bisti yourself, check out my free “Photographers’s Guide to Bisti” which is chock full of maps, tips and other info that will help make your trip as productive as possible. Down the road I’ll write a longer blog in more of a ‘how-to’ format with lots of photographer specific info.
First of all, Bisti really is in the middle of nowhere. Some days I would hike from before sunrise to after sunset and see only one or two other souls the whole time. Seriously, I saw more coyotes than people. Other than the occasional footprint, there are few signs of mankind here. If you are like me and enjoy some time alone, then you will appreciate the solitude. It is deeply peaceful place.
Bisti isn’t Disney. Once you leave the parking lot, there are no rangers, no boardwalks, no trails, no signs, no way to find your way unless you have a guide or can use GPS. Maybe that’s why they call it the Bisti Wilderness. 2020 UPDATE…a pit toilet at the main Bisti Parking lot has recently been added…so at least you don’t have to drive 40 miles to find a bathroom like in the past!
Bisti is about as alien as anyplace on earth. For example, would it really surprise you to see the image below in Luke Skywalker’s photo album from his boyhood home on Tatooine?
The area is huge. The Bisti Wilderness covers over 45,000 square acres. Even though I hiked 10-20 miles per day, I covered only a small fraction of the area. You could literally spend weeks exploring here and find something new every day.
Bisti is full of surprises. I had done a lot of research before my trip but even so, I was unprepared for the sheer number of hoodoos, arches, wings and formations of every possible, misshapen and contorted shape imaginable.
One of my neatest ‘finds’ was the hoodoo shown below:
Yes, Bisti was alien during the day but it truly was magical at night.
Other than the mournful howling of coyotes, the loudest sound you will hear is the beating of your own heart as you gaze up at the Milky Way. The nearest towns are 30-50 miles away so light pollution is minimal and Bisti’s 6500 feet of elevation ensures that the stars are incredibly colorful, bright and crisp.
The Bisti Badlands are beautiful but barren.
By that I mean that this isn’t a place conducive to life. No grass, no trees. An occasional, desiccated scrawny bush and some insignificant lichens growing on rocks. Perhaps a few birds and you might even flush a jackrabbit if you are lucky…but don’t expect to see much else green or moving.
Bisti is the kind of place that really fires up your imagination. You see the wild shapes sculpted millions of years of persistent erosion and then your brain struggles to make sense of what you are looking at.
For example, my eyes saw this hoodoo:
But to my brain, it was a Klingon Battle Cruiser:
Then I noticed this one :
As I explored Bisti my mind kept drifting and I found myself daydreaming about Sci-Fi movies. Apparently that doesn’t make me unique…after all, the most famous place in the Badlands was named after a scene in the classic Sigourney Weaver Alien movie…
The ‘eggs’ are a collection of rounded boulders, each about 3′ long or so. From a distance they seem nondescript but as you get close they really do appear eerily organic. The experts will tell you that they are are remnants of limestone tubes that eroded into egg shapes, but your imagination might come up with a more frightening explanation. The Egg Hatchery can be wildly dramatic near dawn or dusk when highlighted by direct, low-angle sunlight. At night, it just takes a little low level lighting (LLL) on the eggs to create stunning images.
I found Bisti to be one of the most entrancing, memorable and emotionally stirring locations I’ve visited. It is easy to understand why Native American’s consider the area to be sacred.
Just the same, Bisti clearly isn’t for everyone, but if you want to see something totally different, don’t mind solitude and can put up with a bit of walking, it might just sing to you like it has to me.
Reminder to you photographers out there: If this place interests you, I also have written a comprehensive Bisti guide for photographers. Just click here to check it out!
Bisti Badlands Photography
Bisti Badlands: A photographers perspective
Bisti Badlands Photography a photographer’s perspective