The Otherworldly Landscapes of Bisti Badlands

Last Updated on: 8th September 2023, 06:55 pm

The American Southwest is home to some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. But even with so much competition nearby, New Mexico’s bizarre Bisti Badlands is among the most breathtaking and unique parts of the region. With that being said, it hardly gets any visitors, and there’s a high chance you’ll have it all to yourself.

This is due to a couple of factors, such as it not being near any major city, while getting there requires driving along unpaved roads. Furthermore, specifics on reaching the area can be hard to come by. 

But those who’ve made the journey will likely agree that the effort is worth it. Not only are the landscapes probably unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, but the lack of crowds – or people in general – makes the visiting experience all the more surreal.

Officially, the area is known as the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area. ‘Bisti’ is a Navajo word which means ‘a large area of shale hills,’ while De-Na-Zin is Navajo for ‘cranes.’ Bisti is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, which means it’s free to enter and even camp at if you so desire.

The following guide covers two sections of Bisti Badlands – one known as the Bisti Wings Trail and another simply called the Bisti Badlands Trail. But ‘trail’ is used very loosely here, as there are no actual trails of any sort in these badlands.

What follows is a list of basic information to know before you go, after which you’ll find detailed rundowns of what to expect at each area. Also so be sure to check the end of the guide for details on the complicated process of reaching Bisti by vehicle.

Bisti Wings

About These Hikes

Bisti Badlands Map
The two hiking areas featured in this guide
While no actual trails exist, the AllTrails map can help you find various landmarks

THE BASICS: The following guide covers two sections of Bisti Badlands – one known as the Bisti Wings Trail and another simply called the Bisti Badlands Trail. But as mentioned above, there are no actual trails of any kind in either area.

Rather, you just have to use your intuition as you walk across – and over – the otherworldly terrain. While there’s no official finish, there are a number of geological oddities to seek out in each area.

In the end, it’s up to you how long to spend for each hike. As both areas are a photographer’s paradise, you could easily spend hours in each section. As I had limited time, I only spent about 90 minutes at the Bisti Wings trail and then two hours at the Bisti Badlands Trail (I’d later go to visit the Valley of Dreams on the same day).

RECOMMENDED APPS: While there may not be any proper trails, it’s highly recommended that you download the AllTrails app and pay for a subscription which allows you to view the app offline, as there’s no service in the area.

The app’s ‘trails’ for Bisti Badlands are merely rough suggestions, and not meant to be followed exactly. But they will help you find some of the most impressive geological oddities, and the app will also help you make it back to your car without getting too lost.

As you can learn more about below, reaching Bisti is quite a challenge, so also be sure to download the free Maps.me app for navigation. It has much more accurate outlines of the local dirt roads than Google Maps does.

WHAT TO BRING: Bringing your own water and snacks for the entire day is a must. There is no shade in the region either, so be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen.

Hiking boots would be helpful, but a good pair of tennis shoes should suffice. Trekking poles aren’t necessary and would probably be more of a hindrance.

STAY SAFE: Even though hiking Bisti Badlands doesn’t involve walking up particularly steep terrain, you will occasionally encounter tricky areas. If you were to fall and hurt yourself while hiking solo, there’s a chance that nobody would find you for a long time. And even then, help could be a long way away.

While those who are reasonably fit and are extra careful shouldn’t have any problems, it’s best to consider the risks before hiking in these badlands.

The Bisti Wings Trail

The parking lot of the Bisti Wings Trail can be tricky to reach, which you can learn more about below. And even after making it to the parking lot, you won’t find any signs pointing you in the right direction.

This is where the AllTrails app comes in handy, but be sure to pay for a subscription and download the correct map in advance. Otherwise, you won’t be able to use it offline. 

Speaking of reception, I did get a weak signal in the parking lot area, but there was none whatsoever once I entered the badlands.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

Approaching the trail, I was surprised to encounter the whole area blocked off by barbed wire. While there were some gaps big enough to squeeze through, I decided to look for an opening.

After some searching, I found a wash over which no fencing was built. I walked down into it and followed it deeper into Bisti.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

What follows is not supposed to be a step-by-step guide. As mentioned above, once you approach the main area, there are no trails or signs of any sort here. And there’s also no official finish.

But that’s a large part of what makes visiting Bisti Badlands special. No two people’s visits are going to be the same. And as you freely explore the area, you never quite know what you’re going to encounter.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

As mentioned earlier, think of the AllTrails route as a mere suggestion. More helpful than the so-called trail is the fact that a number of the most interesting formations are marked on the app.

While the locations may not be 100% accurate, they are indeed pretty close.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

But just what, exactly, are badlands? 

Badlands are a type of dry terrain in which clay soil has been heavily eroded. What results are a lot of unique formations that often can’t be seen in other environments. And in the case of Bisti Badlands, some of the shapes here probably can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

But first, you’ll have to make some effort to see them. After walking across what was mostly empty, open terrain, I finally spotted some hoodoos in the distance. 

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

A hoodoo is basically any tall and thin spire of rock that was formed as a result of erosion. The iconic formations of Bryce Canyon in Utah, for example, are considered hoodoos, and so are the ‘fairy chimneys’ of Cappadocia, Turkey.

Given the softness of the rock at Bisti Badlands, the hoodoos here take on all sorts of unique and unpredictable shapes.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

In reference to the AllTrails map, I initially started with the right-hand side of the loop before walking to the center. Despite being well off the ‘trail,’ this turned out to be one of the most scenic parts of the entire area.

Reading other reviews and comments about the Bisti Wings Trail, it seems like many people try to follow AllTrails too closely and end up missing this section.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

In general, some climbing is required to enjoy some of the best views at Bisti Badlands. Just be careful not to slip. As mentioned above, it’s unlikely that anybody’s going to find you out here.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

Being alone surrounded by such otherworldly rock formations was a surreal experience that I’ll never forget. While I’d later run into some people at the Bisti Badlands Trail, I didn’t encounter a single other person during my entire time in the Bisti Wings area.

Should we someday colonize Mars, I now have a pretty good idea of how the first people there might feel.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

Standing atop a hill and looking at the view below me, I observed what appeared to be mountains and valleys. But compared with your typical mountain scenery, the proportions here were all off, only adding to the overall sense of eeriness.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

After admiring the views from above, I continued heading east, hoping to get back on the AllTrails loop. My next goal was to find the ‘Brown Hoodoos’ that were marked on the app.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

Looking back, I’m not sure if I ever ended up finding them, but I did indeed encounter countless hoodoos that appeared like mushrooms.

In some sections of the Bisti Wings Trail area, you can stand in a given spot and turn 360 degrees, witnessing completely different – yet equally fascinating – formations in all directions.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

As should be obvious by now, Bisti Badlands is an absolute photographer’s dream. It was hard to make steady progress, as seemingly every few steps, I’d encounter a new vantage point that I couldn’t resist stopping and taking a photo of.

If time is on your side, you could easily dedicate an entire day to this relatively small section alone. But as I still had a few other hikes planned, I had to keep moving.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

Next, I set off to encounter the Stone Wings, after which the Bisti Wings Trail was named. Looking at the AllTrails map, you’ll find it marked at the far eastern end, about 2.5 miles from the parking lot.

But first, I had to traverse through some washes. Being entirely surrounded by hoodoos in all directions, I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not I was headed in the right direction. 

But before long, the iconic ‘Wings’ suddenly appeared atop a hill in the distance.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

The wings formations are special types of hoodoos in which the upper-most layer has survived intact despite much of the rock below having eroded away. What results is what appears like a long, flat rock that’s ‘balancing’ on a narrow base.

And what’s particularly unique about this area is that contains a set of three such wings in a row.

Hiking Bisti Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti Wings Trail

This area is not to be confused with the King of Wings Trail in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area, which is home to an even larger wing. The hike leading up to the main landmark there, however, is said to be relatively uneventful.

I carefully climbed up the rock to stand level with the wings, enjoying the spectacular views around me. The difficult drive and off-trail hike were all worth it. But my day was only beginning.

I returned to the parking lot via the northern section of the AllTrails route, which is surprisingly flat and desolate compared with the areas pictured above. With the help of GPS, I managed to make it back to the parking lot without a hitch.

Hiking Bisti King of Wings Trail

The Bisti Badlands Trail

As you can read about in more detail below, it used to be possible to drive directly between the two trails via Road 7290, but it’s now a better idea to return to Highway 371 first.

In contrast to the Bisti Wings Trail, as you approach the Bisti Badlands Trail area, you’ll see official signs placed by the Bureau of Land Management. And after being alone at the first trail, I was surprised to see several other vehicles in the parking lot.

Hiking Bisti King of Wings Trail
Hiking Bisti King of Wings Trail

This area is also protected by barbed wire, though you’ll find an official gate for easy entry. While I don’t know for sure, I’m guessing that the fences surrounding Bisti Badlands are there to protect it from grazing cattle.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

As with the first trail mentioned above, the Bisti Badlands Trail is also traversed from west to east. But again, there’s no true right or wrong way to explore it, as long as you don’t cause any damage to the formations (or yourself).

It would be wise, though, to have some goals in mind before you set off. On the AllTrails map, you can find numerous landmarks to seek out. But as I’d later learn, they’re not all equally impressive.

The top highlight of this area is the ‘Cracked Eggs,’ but I first set out to see the ‘Chocolate Hoodoos.’

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

Roughly following the suggested AllTrails route, the path forward was blocked by hills. And in my attempt to find a way around them, I ended up way off path.

Eventually, I decided to just climb up the hills to get myself back on track. And luckily, I did indeed find plenty of hoodoos. But as with the Brown Hoodoos mentioned above, I’m still not sure whether or not I actually found the Chocolate Hoodoos.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

Next, I attempted to head northeast to get back to the main route suggested by AllTrails. But not wanting to get deep down into the wash, I decided to walk across the tops of the dark clay hills.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

Before long, I made it to the edge, overlooking the main valley of this part of Bisti. The views were incredible, allowing me to see countless hoodoos and all four of Bisti’s geologic layers.

But to continue on with my journey, I’d somehow have to figure out a way down.

I carefully and slowly made my way down, luckily making it to the valley floor in one piece. While I did spot a few hikers in the distance, getting injured here would be far from ideal.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

On my way toward the Cracked Eggs, I stopped at another landmark that’s marked on the app: Flat Top. As the name is pretty self-explanatory, it’s hard to miss.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

The journey onward to the Cracked Eggs was relatively flat and simple. But I couldn’t help myself from making a few small detours to check out various interesting shapes I spotted in the distance.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

The Cracked Eggs are also known as the Alien Hatchery, and it’s easy to see why. It really does look like strange creatures could emerge from these ‘eggs’ at any moment. But what actually are these bizarre formations?

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

In geology, these are known as concretions. They first form inside layers of sedimentary rock, often around something like a small rock or shell. And over time, they eventually harden into rocks themselves.

Later on, when something like water erosion washes away the softer sedimentary rock around it, the concretion is all that remains. While concretions themselves are a common geological phenomenon, it’s doubtful there are many others in the world that look quite like these.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

Despite being the most popular landmark of this part of Bisti, I was lucky enough to have it all to myself. I spent a while at these mysterious eggs, taking in the bizarre scenery in utter silence.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

The Cracked Eggs are roughly 80% into the AllTrails trail. And if you were to continue further east, you’d find other landmarks like ‘Petrified Wood.’ But as I still hoped to hike the Valley of Dreams loop later in the day, I began heading back toward the parking lot.

And on the way back, I could stop at numerous landmarks on the north side of the valley that I missed on the way over.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

Some, however, were easier to spot than others. While I made a slight detour north of the AllTrails loop to see landmarks like ‘Alien Woman,’ ‘Elegant Hoodoo’ and the ‘Bisti Arch,’ I’m not quite sure if I actually found all of them.

The ‘Bisti Rock Garden,’ on the other hand, was unmistakable.

As is the case with the Cracked Eggs, the rocks here are presumably also concretions. But most of them came out a lot rounder and smoother. While not the most impressive landmark at Bisti, it was worth the quick detour.

Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail
Hiking Bisti Badlands Trail

I then walked across mostly flat terrain to reach the parking lot, having spent about two hours at the Bisti Badlands Trail in total. But as is the case with Bisti Wings, one could easily spend an entire day here and not run out of things to discover.

Additional Info

*Note: The exact route to get to either trail could change at any time, as certain weather conditions can easily wash out sections of the unpaved roads. It’s always a good idea to check for the latest information online first, such as by reading the most recent reviews on AllTrails.

While many people make it to Bisti Badlands in a sedan, it would be wise to rent a high-clearance SUV for this journey, as there are indeed some rough and bumpy sections.

In general, once you’re off the main highways, Google Maps won’t be of much help in these parts. Be sure to download Maps.me which is helpful during road navigation. As mentioned, AllTrails is the best app to use while hiking.

Getting to the Bisti Wings Trail

Coming from Farmington or Bloomfield, head south down Highway 371. After about 45 minutes of driving, you’ll want to make a left onto Rd. 7295, which is a dirt road. Then, reaching the fork in the road, make a right onto Road 7290.

At the turnoff, there’s no sign mentioning the trail or Bisti Badlands in general – only a sign for ‘Bistahi Church.’ But once you get to the church, there are a couple of signs directing you to a parking area.

Arriving at the parking lot, it’s time to pull out AllTrails and head toward the scenic area mentioned above (be sure to subscribe and download the map in advance or else you won’t be able to view it offline).

Getting to the Bisti Badlands Trail

Making it back to your car, it’s time to head to the Bisti Badlands Trail area. This is even marked on Google Maps as ‘Bisti Parking/Access.’

Apparently, it used to be possible to drive directly between the Bisti Wings Trail and Bisti Badlands Trail via Road 7290. However, at the time of my visit, a large chunk of this road was completely washed out.

Therefore, I headed back the way I came to Highway 371 and then proceeded further south. Next, I turned left onto Road 7292 (all dirt). And eventually, another left onto Road 7290, approaching the Bisti Badlands Trail parking area from the south.

As mentioned above, you should see proper signs around here so you’ll know you’re in the right place.

When finished with the two trails described above, you can either return the way you came back to Highway 371 and then back north toward Farmington.

Many people, however, will be interested in visiting the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area as well, which looks very similar to Bisti.

Onward to the Valley of Dreams/Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah

Out of multiple trail options in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area, I chose the Valley of Dreams. While you can learn all about it in a separate article, here’s a brief summary of what to do.

From Bisti, first return to Highway 371 and head south yet again. Next, turn left (east) onto Road 7650 (again, all unpaved). If you want to visit the Valley of Dreams, turn right onto 7870, which will take you south for a while before looping around east.

At the time of my visit, 7650 was decent, but 7870 was quite rough, so it would be wise to rent a 4×4. As there’s no signage whatsoever, learn more details about how you’re supposed to find the trailhead in our dedicated Valley of Dreams guide.

As we’ll cover in more detail there, when finished, I would recommend heading back all the way west the same way you came and not east/northeast toward Highway 550 – something I learned the hard way!

The nearest towns to Bisti Badlands are Farmington and Bloomfield.

During my trip, I spent the previous night in Bloomfield following a visit to Chaco Canyon. The next morning, I visited the Aztec Ruins National Monument and the Salmon Ruins before proceeding to hike in the Bisti Badlands and the Valley of Dreams. After that, I headed toward Cortez, Colorado.

In Bloomfield, I had a good experience at the Super 8. You’ll find many more options in Farmington, however.

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