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Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

This article was specifically written as a comprehensive guide for photographers visiting the Bisti Badlands to help them make that trip as productive and safe as possible.  If you are more interested in general information about Bisti, then please check out my earlier article which is intended for visitors who aren’t totally focused on photography. 

Note:  The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a huge area (45,000 acres) Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers  Bisti is the western section and De-Na-Zin is to the east but most maps (and signs) will just say ‘Bisti/De-Na-Zin…which can be a bit confusing. This blog only covers the popular western section (Bisti) which is about 36 miles south of Farmington, N.M. and includes locations like the ‘Alien Egg Nursery’ (aka “Cracked Eggs”),  the ‘Stone Wings,’ the ‘Conversing Hoodoos’ and others   This blog will not review the De-Na-Zin area which borders CR 7500 (this area includes the ‘Valley of Dreams’, ‘Alien Throne’ and the ‘King of Wings.’ )

 

Tip 1:  Get a GPS App:

There are no trails in Bisti, no boardwalks, no rangers, no consistent cell service.  Lots of folks don’t plan ahead and end up walking around for hours, getting lost and not seeing much. 

If you have your own GPS unit or you’re one of the old breed who knows about topographical maps and compasses, then you can get topo maps here and you will find GPS coordinates later in this article.   

But for most folks the best thing to do is buy a good GPS app for your smartphone.  Some of these apps are really excellent and with a bit of practice, you should be able to find your way around Bisti well.  Personally, I’d recommend the All Trails Pro ($29.99/yr) app.  Another highly regarded product is the Gaia App ($20)

  •  These apps do not need a cell signal to work…which is critical since cell service is poor in Bisti.  They work work right off of GPS satellites.
  • All Trails Pro includes ‘tracks’ by other people who have previously made this hike and it includes their photos.  For example, you can pull up a hike I did in Oct 2018 and see exactly where the photo locations are that I found.  When hiking with this app, it can indicate your location within ten feet or so (which makes it pretty darn hard to get lost).  Think of it as a ‘virtual guide.’  $30 might be a lot for an app, but its cheaper than buying  stand-alone GPS unit…plus if you are coming all the way to Bisti to photograph, $30 seems to be a small price to ensure that you make the most of the experience (BTW: I don’t get a kickback from All Trails…or any of the items I recommend in this blog). 
  • Don’t buy one of these apps and use it for the first time when you visit Bisti.  There is a learning curve involved when using these apps.  You really need to try them out first near home and be comfortable using them before hiking out into the desert at Bisti.  
  • Buy a portable backup battery for your smartphone.  GPS apps will drain your battery and if your phone is the only way of finding your way back to the car, you don’t want to run out of juice.  I bought one of these backups a few years ago.  It’s lightweight and will recharge my phone multiple times but I’m sure you can find better/cheaper ones out there now.

Tip 2:  Stay in Farmington:

You can camp in Bisti (at no cost) but you will have to drive back to Farmington (about 40 minutes) to find bathrooms, food or water.  So unless you have an RV or have experience in Wilderness Camping,  getting a room in Farmington will be your best bet.   FYI…there are plans to build a pit toilet at the main Bisti Parking lot, but work has not started as of this date (Nov 2018) 

Tip 3: Visit in the Fall or Spring: 

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is open year round 24/7/365.  Good images can be made any month of the year.  However, some months are definitely more hospitable than others.

  • Many consider September and October to be the prime months to visit.  Temperatures range between 49°-76° and you can stay out from sunrise to sunset with no problems.   
  • April/May are also very good but since this is the is windy season, you have to be careful of the fine dust/sand that can be blown about.  
  • Summers often have some great clouds because of the Monsoons, but the heat can be absolutely brutal:  Bisti is in the desert and there is no water and little shade.  Other than early mornings, it can be challenging to be out for more than a few hours even if you have experience hiking in high temperatures.   Night photography can still be a good option during these months (the Milky Way core is out and the full arch is visible).  
  • Bisti does get snow in the winter and it can used to great advantage in your photography if you can handle the chilly temperatures  (Bisti is at 6500 feet, so it really does get cold here).
Monthly Averages & Records –  °F 
Date Average
Low
Average
High
Record
Low
Record
High
Average
Precipitation
Average
Snow
January 19° 38° -21° (1963) 63° (1986) 0.64″ 6.3″
February 23° 45° -10° (1989) 68° (1976) 0.43″ 5.9″
March 28° 53° 3° (1966) 80° (2004) 0.68″ 5″
April 34° 62° 10° (1980) 86° (1981) 0.56″ 1.2″
May 42° 71° 19° (1967) 92° (2002) 0.65″ 0.5″
June 52° 82° 26° (1974) 99° (2007) 0.57″ 0″
July 57° 86° 45° (1995) 100° (2007) 1.46″ 0″
August 55° 83° 35° (2000) 94° (1996) 1.84″ 0″
September 49° 76° 25° (1971) 90° (2004) 1.04″ 0″
October 39° 64° 14° (1993) 81° (1963) 1.04″ 1″
November 27° 49° -6° (1976) 76° (1977) 0.79″ 3.1″
December 21° 40° -12° (1990) 63° (1999) 0.53″ 7″

Tip 4:  Think about your Safety:

A Personal Locator Beacon

When you hike in Bisti, you will often not see another soul all day.  Plus cell service is not good.  Occasionally you might get a signal when you climb a bluff but you can’t count on it.  If you get seriously lost or have a medical emergency, help could be a long time coming…if it comes at all

Hiking with a friend is a good idea. 

Another option is to have a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).  PLBs are smaller than a cell phone and weigh about the same as a couple granola bars.  They accurately relay your position to a worldwide network of search and rescue satellites in case of emergency.  My PLB set me back about $280 from Amazon, which isn’t cheap unless you consider the alternative. Plus it made my wife happy…and that is truly priceless.  

There aren’t many big critters here, so you don’t need bear spray.  There are rattlesnakes, so don’t go sticking your hand into dark holes, but short of stupidity of that magnitude, you don’t have to worry much about wildlife.

It is the desert.  Lots of sunshine, 12 months of the year.  Wear a hat and sunscreen and carry plenty of water.

Tip 5:  Rain makes Bisti a mess:

You wouldn’t think it rains here in the desert, but it does.  And even a little sprinkle of rain will turn the surface into a heavy, boot-sticking goo that makes hiking miserable (I learned this the hard way).  If rain is in the forecast, it might be a good day to check out other photo ops in the area (like Shiprock.

How do you to get to Bisti?

Nearly every photographer going to Bisti wants to go to the ‘Eggs’.  Whether you call them ‘Cracked Eggs,’ Alien Eggs,’ ”the Alien Egg Nursery’  or ‘the Egg Hatchery’ it is the certainly the most famous and desirable photo location in Bisti, so that’s where we will start:Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

  • To download a PDF of this map, click on Bisti Hiking photo map merged final.
    • From Farmington, take SR 371 south about 36 miles, turn left onto Country Road CR 7297.  It is between Mile Marker 71 and 70 (closer to 70).  CR 7297 is a well maintained gravel road (as of Oct 2018).  You don’t need FWD or high-ground clearance.  CR 7297 will dead-end into CR 7290 in about 2 miles.  Turn left on 7290 and go about a mile until you see the large ‘Bisti’ Sign on your right. 
      Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

      Sign at Parking Lot: #1 on the map

      This is the main parking lot for Bisti.  It is probably the location that will pop up if you search for ‘Bisti Parking’ on Google Maps, Waze or most other apps.  There are a lot of different names for this parking lot, but let’s call it the Main Bisti Parking Area at Alamo Wash (South). Bisti is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and there is no fee to park or hike.   Lock up your car and hide your valuables then walk 100 yards to the cattle guard gate to your east that allows you through the barbed wire.

      Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

      Cattle Guard: #2 on map

      From here you will see two low red hills nearly directly east.  Walk to them. 

      Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

      The two ‘Red Hills’: #3 on map

      When you pass them, look further to the east for two distinctive black topped hills and head toward them. 

      Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

      The two Black Top Hills: #4 on map

       When you reach them, hike around the left (north) side of the two hills.  You should see black topped white cliffs in the distance to the east.  The “Alien Egg Hatchery” is right up against that white colored bluff/cliff that is part of the elevated ridge-line south of you that runs east/west.  The actual area is about half the size of a football field.  The “eggs” are about 3 to 4 feet long but can be hard to spot until you are nearly on top of them (I wandered around for 30 minutes the first time).   Use your smartphone app and it will take you right to them.  From the parking lot, it should take you about 35-45 minutes to reach the eggs (assuming you don’t stop or take any detours on the way). 

    • After checking out the eggs, there are a lot of other spots you can explore and photograph.  Below I’ll review a number of the most popular locations and provide photographic tips

Photo Tips for Bisti’s Top Attractions

South Bisti:

The Alien Egg Nursery (Cracked Eggs): #5 on maps

  • The Eggs look best right after sunrise or shortly before sunset when low angle direct sunlight emphasizes the shadows and textures on the eggs.  Of the two, sunset is often better because the bluff to the east of the Nursery blocks sunrise light until it is a bit higher in the sky. 
    • This is one of the few places (other than the parking lot) that you are likely to see other people.  You will often have other photographers keeping you company at sunset (but rarely any other time of day).
    • Get there early so you can scout out the eggs.  Some of them are much cooler than others.  Remember, the good light doesn’t last long and you don’t want to be stumbling about frantically trying to figure out where to shoot as the sun goes down…plan ahead and use that time productively.
  • Don’t only shoot from eye-level, try getting lower to the ground for a different and more intimate perspective.   Try to pick out a particularly nice ‘egg’ and get close so it fills up your foreground.
  • Night photography here is awesome with very little light pollution.  You can shoot the Milky Way to the south or flip around and shoot northward to capture star trails including the north star.
  • If you only have one day and you can’t be here at sunrise/sunset, then you should know that  the eggs just don’t photograph well during the middle of the day.  If that’s your only option then do yourself a favor and don’t spend too much time here, instead hit some other nearby locations that look great in direct light.  Most of them are only a 30 minute hike away and are detailed below in the section called ‘North Bisti’).
    Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Alien Egg Hatchery

    Sunset at the Alien Egg Nursery. Check out the organic patterns on the surface of this egg.

    Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Alien Egg Hatchery

    If the sky is clear on the horizon, you will be blessed with this dramatic low-angle warm sunlight.

    Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Alien Egg Hatchery

    A subtle amount of Low Level Lighting on the foreground and across the desert floor in the background can make Milky Way Shots truly something out of this world.

The Bisti Arch: #6 on maps

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

The Bisti Arch. If my three year old granddaughter was in this shot she would look like Godzilla looming over Tokyo!

  • This spot is less than a 10 minute walk from the eggs and based on the number of references to it on the internet, it seems to be popular but I can’t for the life of me tell you why.
  • First off, it is really small…the ‘window’ is less than two feet tall.  Not exactly what you would see at Arches National Park!
  • If you set up your tripod very low to the ground, you can make it look larger (see photo) but even so, the results aren’t dramatic.  I’m sure someone, someday will take a great shot of the Bisti Arch, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be me.

Petrified Wood Logs: # 7 on maps

There is petrified wood all over Bisti, but the largest concentration might be just east of the eggs.  Some of these are full logs, many over 30′ in length.  I ran across 5 or 6 of them within 30 minutes.  I’ll admit that I’m fascinated by petrified wood but even if you don’t share my interest, this area is worth a look. 

From the ‘eggs’, walk east along the bluff/wall that overlooks the eggs.  There are a number of little alcoves, each with some photographic gems and oddities, like this hoodoo shown below with a chuck of petrified wood perched on top:

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

I’ve seen a lot of hoodoos in my time, but this was a first!

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

This log weaves in and out of the cliffside…

The first log is east of the Nursery around two small outcrops of light colored rock projecting out from the bluff that borders the badlands to the south of you.  It’s a long, nearly black log that rests on a 5′ tall white rock pedestal. It’s pretty neat but I have always found it difficult to capture its appeal in a photograph.

Just behind the bluff behind this log is a large flat area surrounded by walls.  Just continue walking east about 500 feet and look for an opening through the wall to your right.  Once you get into this area, you will find a number of huge logs .   

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Check out the root ball on this petrified cypress tree. Bisti is one of the few places where you will be able to make an image that has BOTH a hoodoo and a petrified log!

 

Hoodoo City:  #8 on map

This is a dense concentration of hoodoos close to #7.  They are in a depressed ‘amphitheater-like’ setting.  It is best photographed after the sun rises over the surrounding walls..

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

“Welcome to Hoodoo City N.M.    Population Zero”

Rock Garden:  #9 on map

The Bisti Rock Garden is an area with lots of small rounded rocks that photograph well near sunrise/sunset when the low angle light accentuates long shadows  There are also some small (7′ tall or less) hoodoos a bit to the west but they are not particularly photogenic during the middle of the day.   

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

The so-called ‘Elegant Hoodoo’ is about five minutes from the Rock Garden

Since there are much more photogenic places at Bisti for sunrises and sunsets, I never spend much time here.  Instead I start heading north where you will find the highest concentration of great photo ops.  Pull up your GPS app on your phone and follow it to the Beige Hoodoos. 

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Bisti Rock Garden…

North Bisti

Beige Hoodoos:  #10 on map

As you hike out of the wide and flat Alamo Wash, your GPS will lead you through some increasingly narrow valleys as you hike in a northerly direction.  If you are heading here from the eggs, it will take you about 30 minutes or so.  The Beige Hoodoos cover a substantial area…think of one or football fields…packed with squat 6′ tall hoodoos jammed together.  Plan on spending some time here.  There are so many hoodoos that it can be overwhelming and you might have a tendency to take wide-angle shots in an effort to get them all in a single frame (like I did below).  However many of these hoodoos are fascinating by themselves so invest some effort into photographing them as individuals as well.

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

The Beige Hoodoos are a large and enjoyable area for you to explore.

Manta Ray Wing:  #11 on map

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

This is the view of the Manta as you walk up to it from below…

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

…but from another perspective it looks totally different…

As you follow your GPS app and walk north and east from the Beige Hoodoos, the pathways become narrower and more constructed.  Take your time, watch your footing and you’ll be fine. 

The Manta Ray is one of the more attractive wings you will see while winding through the little dry creeks.  Stop every few minutes and check out the surrounding ridgelines so you don’t miss the photographic opportunities  that populate this area. 

The Manta can look dramatically different depending on what angle you photograph it from. 

Even though I thought I had examined it from every angle, I was wrong.  A photographer named Mike Jones captured this perspective that makes it look like a F117 fighter jet!

Vanilla Hoodoos:  #12 on map

As the name implies, these hoodoos are very light in color and look quite dramatic when photographed in front of a nice cerulean blue sky.  Not as large an area as the Beige Hoodoos, but perhaps even more photogenic. 

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

The Vanilla Hoodoos are filled with fantastically shaped monuments that will fill quickly up your memory cards.

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

I call this one the ‘Star Destroyer’…one of many the many delights awaiting you in the Vanilla Hoodoos.

There is also quite a bit of petrified wood in this area

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

A stump of petrified wood provides foreground for the Vanilla Hoodoos…

Stone Wings:  #13

As you are  hiking in from the south (from the Eggs or Beige Hoodoos), you will have to negotiate some uneven footing and narrow passages.  Again, just be careful and don’t rush.  Other than the Eggs, the Stone Wings are probably Bisti’s most famous photo op.   These large wings are perched on an easily accessible bluff and are truly magnificent…certainly among the most photogenic I’ve seen anywhere.  Wonderful at sunrise and sunset and easy to photograph from multiple angles and perspectives.  It is also an absolutely incredible location for night photography. 

Bisti Badlands: star trails Stone Wings night photography

If you position yourself south of the stone wings, you can shoot great star trails with the north star anchoring the image.

Bisti Badlands Milky Way Night Photography Stone Wings

If you walk up the bluff that the stone wings are perched on, you can shoot them with the Milky Way visible to the south.

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Stone Wings

The warm, orange light of sunrise illuminates the Stone Wings in all their glory. The wing on the right reminds me of a Klingon Battle Cruiser but from other angles it looks like a seal. Either way it is likely to be one of the most uniquely sculpted and sensuous wings you will see anywhere.

Conversing Hoodoos:  #14

These tall, elegant Hoodoos are one of my favorite spots in Bisti…right up there with the ‘eggs’ and ‘stone wings.’  Unlike many hoodoos here, these suckers are tall…easily 15′ or so and they sit on the side of a bluff with a commanding view of the valley (Hunter Wash).  The best light here is during the morning because of a bluff behind them (to the west) that blocks sunlight in late afternoon, but good photos can be taken here all day.  Don’t be afraid to explore around them for better angles.  The shot below was taken hand-held while on my back wedged in a crevice trying to capture that elusive afternoon light.  Desperation can definitely inspire creativity!  FYI…some folks call these the “Talking Hoodoos” or the “Bonnet Hoodoos.”

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Tatooine? Altair IV? Vulcan? Nope…just another couple Hoodoos in Bisti!   I think the Conversing Hoodoos are particularly photographic and the surrounding vista and dramatic clouds are just icing on the cake.

There is a whole lot more to photograph in Bisti and I’m sure that there are wonderful locations that I’ve failed to include in this blog.  One great source to find other locations is the Bisti Facebook page.  Many of the members are locals who know the area far better than I and they post some amazing photos.  You can also check out this link to an interactive Google map that explores additional locations that may interest you.

Now that we’ve reviewed the photo locations, lets finish up by going over some final tips…

Tip 6:  Try Hunter Wash on your second day:

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Map

Bisti North (Hunter Wash) Trailhead directions

As you may have already noticed, most of the really good photogenic stuff here is not around the Eggs….it is in the northern section of Bisti.   If you are going to visit for more than one day then you should concentrate on the northern area on your second day.  If so, then the Bisti Parking Area at Hunter Wash (North) is where you want to go. 

To download a PDF of this map click on Map North Parking lot.

This trail has a couple of big advantages:

  1. It it closer to the northern part of Bisti and will save you over an hour (round trip) of hiking (assuming you are not going to go to the Eggs again). 
  2. If you want to photograph the Stone Wings, Conversing Hoodoos, Beige Hoodoos or Vanilla Hoodoos at sunset, sunrise or after dark, this is a safer route for hiking than from the main parking area.  This is because it will allow you to avoid most of the awkward and difficult trails you would have to use if you try to hike in from the southern part of Bisti (from the main parking lot/eggs area.)

As noted on my graphic, there are some watch-outs:

  1. This parking area is a bit harder to find but with the directions on this map you shouldn’t have any problems during daylight hours. 
  2. Nighttime is another story.  As you get close to the parking area it can be hard to even see the road …if not careful, you could make wrong turn or mistake a ‘path’ for a road and end up getting stuck in loose sand.  If you are going to park here in the dark, scout it out during daylight first.
  3. These roads are not maintained as regularly as those leading to the Main Parking Area at Alamo Wash (South). 
    Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

    The cattle guard at the Hunter Wash trailhead. #15 on map above

    They are dirt, not gravel but a regular passenger car should have no problems (as of Oct 2018)

  4. This parking area can flood after rainfall.  Avoid parking here if rain is forecasted.

For details on how to hike to the ‘stone wings’ from the parking area check out a ‘track’ I recorded on All Trails for this hike, you can see it here.

Tip 7: Get out of the Gutter

Look for the white areas and then go check them out.

When hiking in Bisti, your natural tendency is to walk in the washes (flat valley areas).  Instead, occasionally climb up on the little hills and bluffs and scout around.  Although it is a bit more work, you will find that often some really interesting stuff is pretty close but you just couldn’t see it from down in the washes.   When you do get on top of a hill, look for white colored areas (as opposed to the regular darker coffee-colored landscape).  These lighter areas are usually the ones that have most photographic interest  (like hoodoos/wings).   

Tip 8: Don’t Believe in First Impressions

When you first walk up to a new hoodoo or wing, resist the temptation to just start taking photos.  Instead, walk completely around it.  Look at it from different angles and different elevations (low to the ground vs eye level).  Nearly always the best composition will NOT be the first one you see.  I have missed some great opportunities by not following my own advice here (like the Manta Ray I already mentioned).

Tip 9:  Walking on Sunshine

Stone Wings at Bisti Badlands Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Even at noon, you can capture wonderful images at Bisti.

Don’t shoot only at sunrise and sunset.  Certainly sunrises and sunsets at Bisti can be sublime but the landscape is so unique here that many locations photograph well during day.  Hoodoos and petrified wood, in particular, can be stunning, especially if you have a brilliant blue sky for contrast.  The only downside is that you won’t have anytime for sleep, especially if you hike out early for sunrise, shoot all day, capture the sunset and then stick around for some night photography….   But isn’t that a wonderful problem to have?

Tip 10:  Water is Good for more than Drinking

Spray some water on petrified wood before you photograph it.  The water can really make the color pop .

Tip 11:  Forget the Flip-Flops

Although the footing in most of Bisti is good, I’d recommend boots with good ankle support.  I stumbled a few times (especially when out in the dark)….you really don’t want to break an ankle here.

Tip 12:  Bring your Tripod and Polarizer

Even during bright sunshine,  I find that I often need my tripod because of the need to get a wide depth of field.  Obviously this requires smaller apertures and longer shutter speeds which make a tripod critical. 

A polarizer is great for intensifying the incredible blue skies.  

Tip 13:  Save weight on Lenses

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Monochrome Magic at Bisti: The Conversing Hoodoos

During daylight photography at Bisti, I use my 24mm-70mm zoom for over 80% of my shots (on a full frame camera).  You won’t have much need for a long lenses here.

You might want to bring a wide angle lens.  I used my 14.0-24.0 mm f/2.8 when photographing the eggs so I could get a frame filling egg in the foreground and still show the landscape behind it.  This was my go-to lens for night photography as well,

If you are into micro photography, you might be interested in the lichens that grow on the petrified wood, if so, bring that micro lens.

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Lichens live off of the minerals composing Bisti’s Petrified Wood

Tip 14:  Dust Control

The sand/dust in Bisti can be pretty pervasive.  Bring lots of Microfiber cloths and maybe a small can of compressed air.  Change lenses sparingly.  Also, bring a small towel to put down underneath your backpack when you take it off.  This will keep dust from sticking to your backpack and coating your gear inside.

One last tip:  Don’t forget about Black and White 

It is easy to get enamored with the incredibly blue skies and their contrast with the light-colored hoodoos and wings.  But that very contrast can make for dramatic black and white images, especially if you are blessed with some wicked clouds.  

But don’t despair if blue skies aren’t to be seen,  Overcast skies can really be used to great advantage in Black & White.  Actually, eliminating color can serve to draw attention to the bizarre shapes and textures that are unique to Bisti (see ‘Desert Dreadnaught’ below). 

“Desert Dreadnaught”

 

Wrapping up

If you do make it out to Bisti and you found this guide helpful, then I’d ask for a small favor in return.  Just pop me a brief email and tell me about one thing I left out…or got wrong.  I’d like to make this a living document that helps my fellow photographers in the future and I’d greatly appreciate your help!

Enjoy your time here: it is a landscape photographer’s wonderland.  But even more, I’m sure you will find Bisti a truly spiritual place that you will remember long after the photographs are forgotten.

Jeff

 

 

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

 

Posted in Landscape Photography, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , |

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer’s Perspective

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Can you say BFE?

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.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Not of this 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. 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Cracked Eggs the Alien Egg Hatchery

The ‘Hatchery’…more about this spot later.

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.

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?

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Would it be difficult to believe that this image was created a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?  The ‘Conversing Hoodoos’ are tall, graceful formations with a commanding view of the surrounding valley.

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.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Hoodoos, Wings and Arches…oh my!

Known as the Vanilla Hoodoos, this is one of many football field sized areas full of hoodoos you will come across in the Badlands

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The ‘Bisti Arch’ is no more than two feet tall. But you can make it look larger by getting your tripod down to just a couple inches over the sand.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Every variety, every shape, every size…

 

 

 

 

There are hundreds, if not thousands of wings and hoodoos. 

I had heard that you could find shards of petrified wood at Bisti.  Well, heck with that…I found whole trees:

 

One of my neatest ‘finds’ was the hoodoo shown below: 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Look again…yup that is a  hunk of petrified wood on top….only in Bisti!

Yes, Bisti was alien during the day but it truly was magical at night.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The ‘Stone Wings’ are one of the best known locations in Bisti. These ‘star trails’ were created by combining 25 or so four minute exposures ‘. I used my backpack as a pillow while the camera automatically took a series of shots for over an hour. It was peaceful, quiet and, to be totally honest, just a tad spooky.

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.  

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Stone Wings under the Milky Way

That’s Mars in the upper left. I was lucky to have a small cloud pass just under it when I was making this exposure.

The Bisti Badlands are beautiful but barren.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The “Beige Hoodoo’s”…literally hundreds of them.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Badlands…as far as the eye can see.   Nary a tree or critter in sight..

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:

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Stone WingsBut to my brain, it was a Klingon Battle Cruiser:

   

 

Then I noticed this one :

But my inner Jedi saw a Star Destroyer bearing down on me!

 

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…

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

This set from the movie ‘Aliens’ inspired some creative soul years ago when he/she named Bisti’s “Alien Egg Hatchery”…

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. 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

An image like this only needs Ripley to jump out and start roasting these limestone eggs with a flamethrower…

 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The wonderful low angle sunset light really makes the whole scene pop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Jeff

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!

“Warp Speed Mr. Sulu”

 

 

Bisti Badlands Photography

Bisti Badlands:  A photographers perspective

 

Bisti Badlands Photography a photographer’s perspective

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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