Bisti Badlands:  A Photographer’s Perspective

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.  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?

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
UPDATE:  The Bisti Arch collapsed in March of 2020.  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.


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








Related Images:

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Hi Jeff, great blog post! Thanks for all the info. Starting to plan a road trip to the area for next March. The link to the photographers guide doesn’t seem to be working for me. I just get a blank page. Let me know if there is some other way to get to the page and thanks again.

    1. Hi Brian, I’m sure you will have a great time in Bisti. Here is a link to the photographer’s guide. Let me know if you have any problems getting it to work. Jeff

  2. Hello Jeff,
    Again gear website and photos. I am planning a trip next week to Bisti, i wanted to know the position format you used for the GPS coordinates yo listed on your site. Would be very helpful to put into my garmin gps.
    Thanks , Sal

    1. Hi Sal, The GPS coordinates were from AllTrails and I’m not sure what the position format is that they use (frankly, I don’t even know what a position format is). Alltrails is a very intuitive and simple system to use, but the downside is their info isn’t easily usable for folks who use other systems (like garmin). Sorry! Best of luck! Jeff

  3. Hi Jeff,
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, experience, photos, tips, maps etc on Bisti Badlands. Very very useful indeed as my husband and I are planning to include this magical place in our trip in October. A question, is Bisti accessible by a passenger car and a rental one? How about Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness and Chaco Culture Historical Park? Of the 3, which one is your favourite for photography?
    Kind regards,

    1. Hi Gabby,
      All three locations are accessible by a passenger and/or rental car. However, you will have an hour or two of hiking after parking if you visit Bisti or Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah. At Chaco, you can drive up right to most of the well known locations. Personally, Bisti is by far my favorite for photography…it’s not even close.
      All three are wonderful and I hope you enjoy your visit!

      1. I have been twice. I agree with Jeff misty is the most photogenic and interesting. However it is also very easy to get lost and disoriented because of a large geographic area. I would recommend having downloaded maps and GPS before you go I made a mistake of taking a shortcut because of GPS and almost got stuck in the deep ravines. please don’t do that’s they are dangerous.

        1. Karl is absolutely correct, as I mention in my blog, you don’t want to head out into Bisti without a good GPS system that you are comfortable and experienced with!

  4. If you only stay in the wash, will you miss all the great sites? I am leery about depending on a gps to not get lost in the middle of nowhere. Thank you so much for creating such a detailed website.

    1. Hi Jennifer, unfortunately the only good sights actually in the wash are the eggs and some petrified wood just past the eggs on the right. Near the petrified wood, there is also a couple alcoves right off the wash with some hoodoos. But other than that, there are some minor locations, like the small Bisti arch actually in the wash itself. Tell you what, if you have a smartphone, buy an app called “AllTrails”. It costs $30 but it is a lot cheaper than a GPS unit. Then try it out around where you live until you become comfortable with it. I use it at Bisti and even during night hikes, I have no problem finding my way. With just a bit of practice, you will find it easy to use.
      Good luck!

  5. All I can say is THANK YOU!! I am coming to New Mexico for a medical conference and am trying to find out where my time will be best spent. I can’t tell you how much time you will have saved me because this is so well written. Thank you so much!!! I am coming next week and I can’t wait. Thank you again!! You should really write a book or get this published somewhere. This is absolutely amazing!!!

    1. Hi Janis, I love it when folks drop me a note to tell me that they found my blogs helpful. It is my way of ‘paying it forward’ to those who helped me when I was starting out. Thanks again,

  6. Thank you for sharing your photos, your blog, and your photo tips about the Bisti. I’ve been meaning to get there myself especially since I’m just a 3 hr. drive. I’m waiting on Spring.

    1. You are indeed lucky to live so close to such an amazing place. Best of luck when you visit in the spring and please share with me some of your photos and learnings when you return, thanks! Jeff

  7. First off… OMG. I have read this blog three times today already. Never heard of this place… seen it online… nothing. So thank you!

    It went on my travel list for America today. As a photographer myself, I’m dying inside. The beauty and the detail is unreal.

    My next trip out west was going to be going back to Wyoming and then South Dakota. But…. haha.

    Thank you again for this story and all the amazing photographs. It inspires me.

    1. Alison, Thanks so much for your letter. I put a lot of time and effort into my website and when I get a heartfelt note like yours it truly inspires me to continue. Hope you get to visit the USA soon, there are some amazing and inspiring landscapes here. If I can help with further information, just let me know. Jeff

  8. Great pics and description! I have been twice and on my first time I got lost trying to find the cracked eggs. GPS was actually dangerous because it sent me on path over deep ravines. One needs a good map instead. DId you you camp there at night? Creepy for sure.

    1. Hi Karl,
      Always good to hear from you! Hey, I actually stayed in a hotel in Farmington and just drove in every day. Camping would have saved a couple hours transit time per day. However, the lack of nearby bathrooms, food and water resulted in me deciding to just do the driving. I had a couple stumbles at night as well as I blindly followed my GPS…I had a bad habit of trying to walk and navigate at the same time instead of just taking the time to stop when looking at the GPS. And creepy…oh yeah, walking in the desert at night with no one within 10 miles or so is quite the interesting experience! Wonderful place though…already wishing I was back.

      1. I stayed in Farmington also and went in summer but it is hot and thunderstorm are good but scary with lightning. The Gaia GPS in phone was good for retracing path. Almost better with a friend in case you get hurt. Ah Shi wilderness was even more remote and roads sucked.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu
Close Panel