Bisti Badlands: Land of Enchanted Rock
Bisti Badlands: Land of Enchanted Rock
Rarely visited and remotely located, the Bisti Badlands are an amazing landscape of multi-colored badlands,hoo-doos and clay mounds tucked away in the high desert of Northwest New Mexico. The clay hills consist of varying deposits of minerals such as coal, shale,silt, and mud stone with beautiful banding from orange and gray to rust and purple. Mixed in with the clay multi hued hills are harder deposits of sandstone and the effects of erosion have sculpted fantastical hoo-doos, pinnacles and other strange formations reminiscent of Goblin Valley or the Paria Badlands of southwest Utah.
I visited this wilderness on an extended trip this July to Colorado while leading a workshop on a two week shooting trip in the high alpine meadows and basins of the Rocky Mountains. I had been on the road for nearly 7 days with fellow photographer and friend Ian Plant shooting alpine scenic's in Rocky Mountain National Park and Mt. Crested Butte, when we got the itch to be in the desert while traveling through the San Juan Mountains of far southwestern Colorado. The monsoon was in full effect and we knew that our chances of getting the good light with dramatic clouds over the sculpted desert landscape where prime. We kept driving all day until we finally reached the small town of Farmington, New Mexico at around 6pm. Stocked up on water and a few supplies and were now ready to make the last leg of the trip, some 40 miles across the desert, to the trail head and the Bisti Badlands.
We arrived early enough to grab a quick bite from the cooler and slug down a gallon of water as the hot sun burned blisters on our backs and the dry air sucked the moisture right from our pores. Ah, summertime in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. So why you ask would someone want to visit the desert at the hottest time of the year? A time when you can die of heat stroke, dehydration or the occasional bite of the rattle snake. I have one word for you, the Monsoon!
The monsoon happens every year in the desert southwest effecting primarily Arizona, western New Mexico, the mountains of Colorado and the Colorado Plateau of southern Utah. A large dome of high pressure sitting over eastern New Mexico and Texas drives warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico into the Southwest. Rapid daytime heating leads to upwelling of the moist air and the formation of widespread and occasionally intense thunderstorms. What comes along with these intense thunderstorms is the occasional burst of rain and consequently flash flooding in the deep and narrow subterranean slot canyons as well as the possibilities of amazing light and skies at sunset. A phenomenon that is not usually the case in the high deserts of the west. Most of the year little rain and high pressure cobalt blue dominate the skies.
I must admit that we were hardly well prepared for this adventure into the Bisti Badlands. We had no topo map, no GPS and only a brief description from a book and some advice from fellow photographer George Stocking. None the less, we were determined to make it into the badlands for sunset. Our destination was the Egg Factory, aka. cracked eggs or egg garden. The Egg Factory is only about 1.7 miles as the crow flies from the parking lot. Surveying the land and reading the description, we felt quite confident that we could make it to our desired location with plenty of time to spare before sunset.
So we headed off through the barbed wire gate and across a wide open wash bordered with multi colored badlands to the north and south. Making sure to survey the topography and make note of specific landforms to help us navigate our way back to camp in the dark. After about 30 minutes of walking and a detour down a small side canyon which led to an abrupt end in a dry wall and clay hills, we managed to finally get our bearings and negotiate the terrain around small buttes and across the open wash. Walking deeper into the Bisti, a Navajo word meaning badlands, we finally arrived at our intended destination, the Egg Factory. A small and strange collection of cracked and sculptured rocks sitting in the middle of nowhere like an alien hatchery from some late 70's sci-fi movie. The monsoon was in full effect and virga and lightning fell from the sky to the northeast. The conditions were amazing and we wasted no time scouting out our compositions and impatiently watching the western horizon for a clear break in the sky to illuminate the odd shaped rocks and alien landscape under an equally impressive sky.
As the light intensified, so did the monsoon and our shutters were furiously clicking as we moved from one egg plantation to the next in search of the best composition and lay of light. After the light show had ended and the sky began to go dark in the east and south, I sat for a few moments in the middle of this oddly eroded landscape and simply took in the view and the immense feeling of solitude and wild. In these fleeting moments of of magic, when the light, landscape and atmosphere all come together in perfect harmony, I feel so fortunate to be alive and be able to appreciate and experience wild places. This is the stuff that keeps me coming back to the wilderness in search of self exploration and that eternal connection for the wild that is buried deep inside of all of us. I will return to the Bisti again in the full heat of summer under an enraged sky and a landscape on fire.