Documentation is scarce, and you can stand at numerous cliff faces overlooking this vast basin, but the way down into the lower zones is elusive. Starting in autumn of 2008, I checked out the rim on a few occasions, usually on my way back to Santa Fe from Bisti or Ah-shi-sle-pah. I decided to return as many times as needed to get to know my way deeper into the area.
The more I've seen, the more amazed I've become. Each vertical level of the Lybrook is distinctive, and like the other San Juan Basin badlands, the colors jump out at near sunset and sunrise. There are hoodoos around every corner, and there are more corners than you can imagine. What really sets these badlands off from others in the area, however, are the beautiful orange cliffs looming over them, and the ability to study the badlands from atop those cliffs, either before or after exploration.
First Glimpses of the Badlands
That next time turned out to be in August. I had just stayed overnight at Bisti, and while the noon-time light would be terrible for photography, I figured I would just scout the place out for later exploration. About one half mile off of the highway I met the only other vehicle I have ever seen on these roads to this day, a big old pickup truck which stopped to let me pass. What I didn't see was the deep rut right next to that truck, which I hit pretty hard. I imagine that those guys drove off laughing: I doubt they had stopped at that spot by accident! I drove onward another mile or so to a cliff edge, and heard lots of banging near the front wheel whenever I hit small bumps. I couldn't find anything obviously wrong, but fun and exploration were over, and I limped back to Santa Fe. The next day I found out that the front strut on the Toyota had broken completely apart just below where it attached to the car body!
I didn't make it back until March of 2009, but this time I arrived at Lybrook late in the afternoon, and for the first time studied the fantastic stair steps of hoodoo badlands from above. No matter where I wandered on the rim, I could see nothing close to a safe way down. My disappointment was countered by a spectacular sunset, and I resolved to make 2009 my Lybrook Badlands Year. Bisti, Ah-shi-sle-pah and the others were pushed aside: the main goal would be finding ways into Lybrook, and coming out with tons of fine photographs!
The Grand Overlook and Yellow Rim
There are some inceredibly stunted and twisted trees alonk the upper cliffs at Lybrook, and the culpret soom became obvious. It was April, 2009, and every time I approached the edge I was sandblasted by fifty mile-per-hour gusts from the south. Through the haze I drove to the Grand Lybrook Overlook for the first time, at the westernmost end of the escarpment. The cliffs here were even higher than the others. No way down, but what a view! Below was a candyland of hoodoo lands, mile after mile, and after a bit of driving we were there: one Lybrook layer down, but still well above the lowermost badlands. This is what I call the Yellow Rim, a level which wraps itself all along the cliff bottoms, but is only easily accessible at the western end. It's a yellow hoodoo heaven! There are drainages from here which lead to the west, away from the lower Lybrook badlands. They form Betonnie Tsosie Wash which runs through Hutton Canyon to Chaco Wash.
We made our way to the rim, three hundred feet lower than the Grand Overlook, and we found a possible way further downward. I'm fairly nervous around steep climbs, but I admitted that with a handline for the first section I would give it a try. The lower badlands were now about two hundred feet below. And we saved that for the next visit. At that time I didn't realize that the real way into the lower badlands was about to be revealed!
A German Connection
Gerd first contacted me in early 2009, and he was interested in the San Juan Basin badlands. I helped him to find some obscure badlands south of the Ojito Wilderness, and found out that he was very interested in visiting Lybrook. He had studied satellite views of the area and wanted to access the badlands off of the road into Chaco Canyon, a route I had also looked at.
I'm reminded of all of the planning and dreaming that used to go into my own vacations, back in the '90s, spending months poring over maps, plotting the miles per day, and hoping that the Vacation Gods would smile down on me during those limited days we had to explore. Now I just hop in the car, and if the weather turns bad, I high-tail it home. Finding a back route into Lybrook is hardly akin to discovering the fabled Northwest Passage, or voyaging Colombus-like past the edge of the world, but I'm humbled that vacation planners from Europe beat me to the goal. I had even seen that road from the overlook, but waited for someone else to take it!
In June, Gerd and fellow German traveller Silke just drove right into those lower badlands, and the trip is documented on Silke's website, Westernlady's World. At least next time they are here I'll be able to show them where the really good parts are......
Into The Lower Badlands
By November I had hiked the lower badlands five times, each time reaching the area by roads from the south. Those cliffs look pretty daunting when viewed from below, and the idea of descending into the badlands from above doesn't even cross my mind any more.
Where Gerd and Silke had explored was right below the Grand Overlook, and my first two hikes were into that area, and to the areas just to the east of it. I call those places Egypt, Eden and the Land of Nod, but sometimes I think that they should be called Mars, Phobos and Deimos. The hoodoos there are spectacular, rivalling those at Ah-shi-sle-pah and Bisti, but with their own rough and rugged character.
These lands drain into the Alamita Arroyo, which joins the Escavada Wash, eventually forming the Chaco River, perhaps twenty miles east. The amphitheaters below the easternmost cliffs of Lybrook drain into the origins of the Escavada wash itself. On further hikes I found that those upper drainages are more deeply cut and lacked the multitude of hoodoos found to the west. I think that the best parts there may involve climbing up to the Yellow Rim.
Gas Company Roads
Being a tree hugging dirt worshipper, it's hard enough reconciling the country's ever increasing need for energy with our ever diminishing ability to find natural beauty and solitude. It doesn't help matters when I realize that the array of hundreds and hundreds of miles of access roads and pipeline roads which service the thousands of oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin is damned convenient. There, I've admitted it! My feet are over fifty years old now, and I just couldn't easily get into some of these places without the ugly paths plowed around and sometimes through them. You notice that I used the word "easily," and I admit to being lazy sometimes!
The Lybrook Badlands are peppered with dozens of petroleum wells. Indeed, nearly every overlook point is near to one. Perhaps there will be no more of them, and I hope that as they slowly play out that the land will be allowed to revert somewhat to its former condition. Even if the wells were abandoned tomorrow, the roads would still be used by ranchers and cowboys to move livestock. Indeed, the effects of cattle on the more sensitive areas of the badlands are almost more severe, cumulatively, than the gas companies. I accept the roads out of my greed for access to photographic wonders, but I curse with each pile of cowshit I nearly step on! Oh well.....
So the roads are there: deal with them. Many are passable with two wheel drive and low clearance only during dry weather, but be prepared for sandy areas, and mucky arroyo crossings and general mayhem when the clay surfaces get wet. Access from the west off of the Chaco entrance road is fairly easy, but if it rained hard, the hill where it drops into the badlands could be very interesting. There is access from the east, too, but part of that road had a slope of as much as thirty percent! Another hazard involves deep ruts left by the big oil company trucks. Be forewarned!
The Rest of the Project?
Lybrook Badlands Photo Gallery