With very few exceptions, these badlands are in northwestern New Mexico, in a roughly circular corner of the Colorado Plateau called the San Juan Basin. From the Jurassic period onward, layer upon layer of sandstones and shales were deposited, and then exposed dozens of millions of years later by uplift, volcanism and erosion. The geologic history is better told elsewhere, by someone who knows what he's talking about. but let's just say that where dinosaurs once criss-crossed ancient swamps and lakes, the land is now criss-crossed by oil and gas company roads. Coal, oil and gas extraction dominate the modern San Juan Basin, yet in those remote roadless areas which remain are the actual treasures: the badlands.
What a pleasure it is to drop into these hidden places from the wide open plains around them. They come upon you so suddenly that I have no doubt of the existance of many more pockets of hoodoos awaiting discovery. Some have been saved from destruction, like the Ojito Wilderness and the Bisti De-na-zin Wilderness. Others have become guarded secrets shared among hikers and students of photography, geology and paleontology. These are fragile places where walking lightly is a necessity.
Here are some of my photographs from these wonderful places, and some brief descriptions of them. I present this in the hopes that others will see the awesomeness of the lands here, and will spread the word: save the badlands! Another coal-fired power plant is to be built here soon, further endangering the already degraded air quality in the basin, not to mention the hoodoo lands shot through with seams of coal, ripe for the picking. Yes, the country needs more and more energy, but it would be far too easy to take these places away from us, for far too little gain. I'll get off of my soapbox now; I've got to get out to the badlands again!
The Bisti BadlandsThe Bisti De-na-zin Wilderness is the granddaddy of New Mexico badlands, the only one you are likely to find on a map. Let your imagination run wild, because Mother Nature certainly let her's run wild before you! From tiny to giant, the hoodoos here are only outdone in wondrousness by the petrified logs and stumps scattered around them. And those colors: black and fire-red hills, grey and white formations which come to life during the "golden hours" in the early morning and late evening. If you visit during mid-day you are missing the best of it, not to mention the murderous heat you might subject yourself to. Bring water, snacks and sun-screen, and don't rush the experience: you will need at least half a day to see any of these badlands properly. For more about my trips to the area, check out my Bisti Badlands Files and for a silly exercise in scale, see my Bisti MIni-Jeep Tour.
The Ojito Wilderness
Ojito is only a few dozen miles from Albuquerque, and it's New Mexico's newest wilderness. I've been there many times, and each has been a different experience. This land is at the southeastern end of a golden swath of earth stretching up past Cabezon Peak. Northward is the terminus of the colorful Nacimiento Mountains. The white Mesa mountain bike trails and fantastic Tierra Amarilla Anticline are to the east. Ancient and more recent ruins, petroglyphs, and hoodoo badlands are scattered throughout these old dinosaur stomping grounds. Access is easy and numerous hikes are possible! Here's my Ojito Photo Gallery.
The Lybrook Badlands
This is a most amazing place, hidden right next to a major highway, yet sometimes difficult to access. The Lybrook Badlands are layer upon layer of hoodoo laden excess, hundreds of feet deep. I'm sometimes convinced that this area is of National Park stature, it is so large and varied. From the state highway, about a mile west of the little community of Lybrook, a gravel road leads south to several overlooks of the badlands, most of them near natural gas wells. There are simply amazing views down into the badlands, and the gnarly old pine trees surrounding them are worth a visit on their own. As for my trips to the lower realms, I have documented them a bit more in my Lybrook Badlands Project page.
The Ah-shi-sle-pah BadlandsThere's just no way to get to Ah-shi-sle-pah without many miles of travel on dirt roads, but the trip can be well worth it. Like the Bisti, this is a hoodoo mecca. Unlike the Bisti, a good thunderstorm is likely to leave you stranded for a while. An older name for the area is Meyers Creek. Many "dinosaur digs" in the past brought this place into the news, but now it's mostly for the hoodoo hunters. The colors are a bit more subtle here, but like the other badlands they come to life when the sun is low. I've collected some of my photos of these badlands in my Ah-shi-sle-pah Gallery.
The entire San Juan Basin was in the sights of mining interests in the 1970s and early 1980s; indeed, mining had already begun at Bisti. There was talk of the entire area being written off to provide coal for the Country. During hearings in Santa Fe, a representative of the Western Coal Company, of Albuquerque, said of the Ah-shi-sle-pah: "This is not a wilderness....[It is] barren, desolate land, perfect for strip mining."
In 1984, the United States Congress created the Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness. Since then, the wilderness has actually been added to and consolidated, and we can now assume that the Bisti is safe. While the original legislation sought to protect them, compromises were made, and Ah-shi-sle-pah, thousands of archaeological and paleontologicical sites and other pockets of badlands in the area are still not safe. The Ah-shi-sle-pah is currently designated as a Wilderness Study Area (WSA). I can assure you, it is not "perfect for strip mining"!
More and More Badlands!
There are the San Jose Badlands, north of Cuba, New Mexico, and west of Cuba are the Ceja Pelon and Penistaja badlands. I know of wonderful tiny pockets of hoodoos near Ojito, and there are many others out there. Good luck and good hoodoos to you!