Alone (Well, Almost) in the Bisti Wilderness

How often do you feel alone, truly alone, in the wilderness? For most of us, the answer is rarely or never. But last month, a friend and I visited the Bisti Badlands/De-na-zin Wilderness in northwestern New Mexico, and that’s how we felt (though we did, admittedly, have each other for companionship and safety reasons). We never saw another person the entire time we were exploring this wilderness area, and there wasn’t another car in the parking lot or along the several miles of unpaved road leading to the site. Our only encounter was with a rattlesnake, and thank goodness we only saw one of those!

Among protected scenic locations in the U.S., Bisti ranks among the least known. With no trails, we were thankful for GPS, which tracked our footsteps into and back out of this strange terrain (though don’t count on cell service). I started off the old-fashioned way, using a map and compass, but with the lay of the land, it was challenging to keep to any course of direction.

It’s a fascinating place. The terrain is more like what one might expect to see on the moon, and the rich, earthy colors were fantastic. There are mountain-like mounds, washes, narrow canyons, hoodoos, and strange rock formations that look like cracked eggs. Now a high desert, this was once a swamp inhabited by reptiles, dinosaurs and other creatures. At roughly 60 square miles, we didn’t begin to see it all. After more than three hours of serious hiking and rock climbing in near 100-degree heat, we decided it was time to get out of the sun and look for a cold beverage. I’d love to go back in cool weather with camping gear and a guide for an extended stay. We spent a great deal of time scrambling up and down steep hillsides on our hands and knees, and picking out routes that were often dead-ends overlooking canyons. It wasn’t an easy “walkabout.” It looked and felt more like rock climbing, and I would not have attempted this solo for safety reasons.

If you go, be forewarned: There are no facilities of any kind. Take lots of water, wear sturdy boots, and make sure you have a companion. The access roads (there are two ways to get in, including one that is considerably more remote) are located roughly an hour south of Farmington, NM, which is the nearest town with available lodging. In mid-summer and winter, be sure to check road conditions. Snow and rain can make the roads impassable.