Exploring the Ancient and Otherworldly Bisti Badlands in New Mexico

Dinosaurs once roamed this extraterrestrial desert, wading through the prehistoric coastal swamp of an inland sea.

The lush landscape was home to forests, reptiles, and early mammals. At first glance, you might never guess that this eerie alien world was once swampland, but the unique formations of the rocks and vistas are a window into the ecosystem of the past.

Located in the arid desert of northwestern New Mexico, the Bisti Badlands (formally the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness) is a BLM managed area covering 45,000 acres. Here at the edge of the Navajo Nation, the haunting world of the Bisti and De-Na-Zin has an ancient story to tell,

beginning 145 million years ago in the Cretaceous period.  

Bisti (pronounced bis-tie) is a Navajo word meaning “a large area of shale hills.” De-Na-Zin is taken from a Navajo word meaning “Standing Crane” – a reference to the uniquely formed hoodoos, pillars and rock formations that occupy the area. Petroglyphs of cranes have also been found south of the wilderness.

Humans have lived in the region for more than 10,000 years, and much of the land is sacred and historically significant to the Navajo and other local tribes. I explored the Bisti with a Navajo guide whose family has lived in the area for many generations.


  • A special permit is required to film or photograph the Bisti for commercial use

  • Motorized vehicles and bikes are not permitted in the wilderness

  • Campfires are not permitted

  • Visitors are not allowed to remove rocks, fossils or petrified wood from the park

  • Drone use is prohibited



​The weather can change quickly in New Mexico, it can go from intense sun to thunderstorms within an hour. The Bisti hiking area is large and unshaded, so you’ll want to bring layers, a brimmed hat with a neck strap so it doesn’t blow away, hiking or athletic shoes, and sunglasses. Be sure to pack sunscreen, a snack, and a full water bottle (or two!)

If you’re planning on hiking alone or without a guide, I’d recommend bringing a compass or GPS system and a flashlight, just in case. There are no marked trails and it can be easy to get disoriented out there. We hiked all day and didn’t see a single person. You may even want to bring a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). In case of an emergency, the PLB can send your position to a network of search and rescue satellites.



Established in 1984, the Bisti wilderness is made up of thousands of acres of desolate badlands. Anasazi and indigenous North Americans have occupied the area almost continuously for 10,000 years. A section of the Great North Road and many Chacoan sites can be found within the region, as well as more contemporary Navajo sites.

At the western shore of the North American Inland Sea, a thick conifer forest grew out of the swamp. As the enormous trees grew and fell, they became entombed in layers of mud. Millions of years later, these conifer trees still rest in peace, petrified immortals, some as long as 100 feet.

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Laurel Christine
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