Thursday, February 7, 2019

Bisti Wilderness, Part 1 (Alamo Wash)

                                                                  Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit,
                                                                  and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.  A civilization
                                                                  which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original,
                                                                  is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of
                                                                  civilization itself.
                                                                                                       -- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Northwest New Mexico contains some of the most unusual landscapes in the world.  The Bisti Wilderness (pronounced "BISS-tie") is one of them.

National Geographic recently proclaimed Bisti one of 28 "Best Destinations" for travel in 2019 (click here for the list; Bisti is #13) . . . but not if your idea of travel is a hotel with all the amenities.  It's about 180 miles from my house, and about 40 miles from the nearest hotel.

Seventy million years ago, the 45,000-acre area was a riverine delta of streams, swamps, and ponds on the western edge of the Western Interior Seaway which stretched from Canada to the current Gulf of Mexico and covered most of what we now call the Great Plains in the middle of the United States.  Here's a map of how it looked back then:

Over millions of years, mud, clay, plants, sand, and volcanic ash piled up, each covering the previous layer.  These layers were lifted up about 25 million years ago with the formation of the Colorado Plateau, which is now home to the amazing geological formations featured in dozens of national parks and monuments, including the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Arches, Monument Valley, Capitol Reef, and more.

Colorado Plateau area

But the area we now know as Bisti remained covered until about 10,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age ended and flows of water from melting glaciers exposed the layers and eroded them into the fantastic shapes we see today.

The Bisti Wilderness is not far from the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which I wrote about in my previous blog entry.

With a photo buddy I visited the western (Bisti) section of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in November and December of 2018.  The western section consists of two primary areas:  the Alamo/Gateway Wash and the Hunter Wash (further north).  This post is about the Alamo Wash area.

A "wash" is a water drainage area, usually with a large arroyo fed by many smaller tributaries.  In the desert, washes are dry most of the time.  But over thousands of years the intermittent water flows are enough to erode the layers and create amazing shapes and formations.

Here are images of the arroyos in the Alamo and Hunter washes:

Alamo Wash Arroyo

Hunter Wash Arroyo
(still wet from recent rain)

Parking for both wash areas is at the downstream end, so to get to the most interesting features you have to walk a couple of miles upstream across an empty plain.  There are no marked trails in Bisti, so you have to use landmarks to navigate.  (GPS comes in handy here!)

On the south side of the Alamo Wash are hills of colorful dried mud and small watercourses typical of New Mexico badlands.

But about a mile further east, things start to get weird:

Hoodoos -- mud pedestals topped with harder (and, thus, more erosion-resistant) limestone or sandstone caprock -- pop up out of the ground like mushrooms:

We crossed a debris-strewn plain that reminded me of lines from Shelley's sonnet, "Ozymandias":

                                          "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
                                          Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
                                          Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
                                          Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
                                          The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Continuing east, we encountered a small arch . . . 

or maybe it's really more of a window . . .

Further to the south and east, there's a valley that appears to be a nursery of petrified alien eggs:

The "eggs" are actually the remnants of limestone tubes created by limestone-laden water cutting through volcanic ash.  The softer ash has been eroded away, leaving the limestone eggs.

Continuing our eastward journey, we see miniature hoodoo cities . . .

and petrified tree trunks . . .

including this one on the top of a mud column:

Around the end of a line of hills, we turn into another valley filled with hoodoo villages emerging out of the hills:

By this time we were about 3 miles from our car and the sun was dropping fast, so we headed back.

The shadows grew longer and the setting sun highlighted what little vegetation there was:

Twilight . . .

If you would like to see these images and more in a larger format, please visit my photography website, Todos Juntos Photography, by clicking here.

Next post will feature the Hunter Wash area of the Bisti Wilderness.




  1. Thanks, Lance, for these incredible images! Jennifer L.

  2. great geology lesson - plus the eggs in a row and then the tumbleweeds in a row were really similar and cool. / Barry

  3. This is amazing, very otherworldly. Nice quotes and poetry excerpts as well. Really, interesting. Thanks for sharing. Eggs in a row looked like oysters in a half shell to me. —Kathy G-J