Tag Archives: Desert

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







Posted in Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield…when photographers think of White Sands National Monument,  “it just don’t get no respect.”   If you review the “A-Lists” of must-see locations for landscape photographers in the southwest USA…White Sands doesn’t often make the cut.

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Sunset Panorama at White Sands

Frankly, I think the root of the issue is simply that White Sands is isolated and doesn’t easily work into the routing for a typical “Southwest Icon Tour List.”

A second issue is that White Sands doesn’t comfortably fit into the preconception of what we think of when we dream of the American Southwest.  Visions of red rock, hoodoos and carved canyons dance in our heads.  White Sands is none of those things.  It is difficult to categorize…difficult to comprehend.

For whatever reason, it took years of exploring the Southwest before I made the long, lonely drive to these secluded sands.

First of all, let’s talk about exactly what White Sands is.  Covering 300 square miles, it is the world’s largest white gypsum (not sand) dune field.  Gypsum dissolves in water, so unless there is a basin where rain is trapped it is impossible for gypsum to be converted into sand.  Well, White Sands is located in the huge Tularosa Basin which is enclosed by the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains near the small town of Alamogordo .  After the last Ice Age, a lake that covered the basin evaporated and left the fields of gypsum that became White Sands.  The Park is actually part of the White Sands Missile Range (home of the worlds first A-Bomb explosion…the Trinity Site).

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Yup…the sand is white…makes for a striking image.

Second of all, those facts don’t matter a bit when you visit.  What matters is that this place is truly strange…and oddly magical.  Put yourself in this mindset:  you’ve driven hours across desert in the middle of nowhere to get there.  Hour after hour of flat, boring,  mundane, reddish brown desert.  Small, nondescript towns connected by a seemingly endless line of two-lane blacktop.  Finally, you see a sign welcoming you to Alamogordo…and before you know it, you’re passing a sign thanking you for visiting Alamogordo.:)   A few minutes later you pull up to a small National Park Service building, pay the guard, get a brochure and continue driving into the desert.  But…then…things… start …to… change.  As the road twists and curves, the sparse vegetation becomes even more scarce and the sand starts to loose its color.  Then the flat landscape begins to shift as the sand forms dune…which become larger and larger as you drive on. By the end of the eight mile road you might think you were on another planet.  There is an absence of plants and animals.  The sky is blue…the sand is white and other than that, very little color.  There is no sound unless the wind stirs.

You stand there, looking around and then you start to notice weird things…like the the sun might be scorching hot but the sand is cool enough to walk on with bare feet (gypsum doesn’t readily convert sunlight into heat).  And to make it a scene right out of your favorite sci-fi movie, you might even see rockets arch overhead (from the Missile Range).

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Getting down low to the sand and processing in black and white can help to emphasize the drama of the scene.

This place is just not right…like a slightly warped alternate version of reality.  But…it is beautiful.  As a photographer, I was mesmerized. The landscape is so stark, so extreme that images can deliver a real punch.  I experimented a bit with black and white since it complimented the views well.  My son and I parked at the end of Dunes Drive and hiked north to get away from the few other people around and to find dunes that were free of footsteps.

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

These tracks became visible near sunset as the shadows lengthened.

It didn’t take long to get the feeling that we were the only persons alive on this strange alien world.  However, there were a few tracks in the sand, so some critters had obviously adapted to life in this extreme climate.

We hiked even further, just enjoying the solitude and incredible vistas.  All too soon the sun began to set behind the distant San Andres mountains. The orange hues of the sunset created a wonderful palette against the blues and white.  The next few minutes proved to be my most productive as I scrambled to find different compositions.

My favorite shot of the day proved to be my last one.  As my son and I were putting on our backpacks for the hike out, I caught this image of Ryan taking a last, longful look at the rising moon.

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

I consider this image to be one of the best I’ve ever taken.

With this photo, White Sands entered the “Big Leagues” in my book.  I will be visiting again!

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

1)  Bring your polarizer…it can really help blue sky ‘pop.’

2) If the wind is blowing, sand will get everywhere.  Bring a blower for your equipment and avoid changing lenses

3)  There are a few hiking paths, but those areas tend to be covered with footprints.  If you want photos of ‘virgin’ sand, you will have to avoid the trails. I’d suggest parking at the furthest parking lot and hiking north click here to see a detailed map of the park.  Also, if you want shots with only a solitary yucca plant, you best bet is also a the north end of the park.

4) Bring a GPS if you go off trail.  It can take only a few minutes to loose sight of the road and there are few landmarks.  I’m dead serious about this.  It is not a place to get lost.

5)  Morning shots are challenging because the park doesn’t open until 7pm which is after sunrise for much of the year.  If you don’t mind camping, there are a limited number of camping sites that you can reserve.  Keep in mind that sidewinders live at White Sands, so don’t be out in the dark unawares.  They do leave interesting patterns in the sand…if you can find them!

6)  Sunsets are not a problem since the park is open for an hour after sunset.  Just don’t hike so far out into the dunes that you can’t get back to the park entrance in time.

7)  Although shots taken early or late in the day provide wonderful shadows behind the ripples in the sand, photos taken during the middle of the day can also work due to the sheer sharpness of the setting.

8)  Obviously this is the desert so if you are there during the summer, dress accordingly and bring lots of water.

9)  The further you go into the park, the fewer plants you will see.  If you want shots of nothing but desert, you need to go to the end of the road.

10)  Get down low.  It will emphasize the shadows behind the ripples in the sand.

11)  A tripod will be a must if you are going to shoot in low light.  Bring a lightweight one if you are going to hike a distance into the desert.

12)  Temperatures during the summer can be brutal.  It was over 110 on the day I visited (hot even for a Florida boy).  It is certainly more comfortable during the winter.  On the other hand, the summer monsoons often create wonderful cloud patterns.

13)  The park is actually closed regularly because of military rocket tests so before visiting you should check this site for info on Missile Closures.


PS:  I love some of the roadside art I see on my travels.  This 15 foot tall road runner was in a junkyard along the road heading out of Alamogordo…

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

♪ Beep! Beep! ♪ ♫ Roadrunner, roadrunner, the coyote is after you….! ♫

Enjoy your travels!


 White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide


Posted in Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , |