Bisti Wilderness Area

Would you expect to find a duck-billed dinosaur in the desert? Well, welcome to the Bisti Wilderness. The barren and seemimgly lifeless landscape found today is vastly different than the swampy lush vegetation in which huge dinosaurs roamed millions of years ago.

As the inland seas retreated to the north, the coastal swamps and succeeding forest parks and meadowlands of northwest New Mexico disappeared under the advancing river flood plains. Within these sediments lie the buried remains of the rich animal life that lived there. Ancient animal life is represented by isolated teeth and bones of fish, turtles, lizards, mammals, and dinosaurs, who at their zenith dominated the other life forms. These treasures of the past await explorers willing to brave this badlands wilderness.

This 3946 acre area is now known as the Bisti Wilderness. It was designated by Congress in the San Juan Basin Wilderness Protection Act of 1984. Bisti, translated from the Navajo language, means "badlands" and is commonly pronounced (Bis-tie) in English and (Bis-ta-hi) in the Navajo language.


During the Upper Cretaceous period (approximately 70 million years ago), this region was the home of many large reptiles and some very small primitive mammals. This geological time period is of great importance because it represents a transition from coastal swamps to inland flood plains in the San Juan Basin and preserves the record of associated faunal changes. Because evidence of the important evolutionary process is embedded in the rock here, researchers are provided with a valuable window to the past.

Federal law prohibits the collection of vertebrate fossils and petrified wood without authorization. Collection of petrified wood and other fossil material interferes with scientific research and eliminates the opportunity for others to view and to photograph these unusual wilderness features.

Natural History

The Bisti Wilderness is a remote desolate area of steeply eroded badlands topography which offers some of the most unusual scenery found in the Four Corners region. The entire area was once heavily populated by diverse primitive forms of animal life that lived in the coastal swamps and inland forest parks and meadowlands.

The abundant vegetation and animal life that once existed is in stark contrast to today's barren badlands. time and the natural elements have etched out a fantasy world of strange rock formations and fossils. It is an ever changing environment that offers the visitor a remote wilderness experience.

The two major geological formations found in the wilderness are the Fruitland Formation and the Kirtland Shale. The Fruitland Formation makes up most of what the visitor will see while in the badlands and contains interbedded sandstone, shale, mudstone, silt and lignite to bituminous coal. The weathering of the sandstone forms the many spires and hoodoos (sculpted rock) found throughout the wilderness. The Kirtland Shale contains rock of various colors. This shale caps the mushroom shapes landforms of the area. The red hills result when the shale is baked by high temperatures produced by oxidation of the surrounding coals. These hills are most picturesque at dusk. The billowy mounds made up of a crumbling layer of caked soil are the product of rapidly eroded silts and clays.

Climbing on rock formations is dangerous, accelerates erosion and destroys the scenic value of the area.

Wilderness Management

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is directed to manage the Bisti Wilderness in a way that preserves its wilderness values. Preserving these values involves protecting the area's natural qualities, opportunities for solitude and primitive types of recreation, as well as the area's special features. Wilderness must be used and managed in ways that will leave it unimpaired for the use and enjoyment of future generations. The BLM strives to emphasize uses that preserve the wilderness as a place people can visit and enjoy in a natural state.

Managing wilderness is a difficult task that requires a commitment from the managing agency as well as the public. The challenge for management lies in ensuring that the management actions and activities within the wilderness are carried out in a manner that is compatible with the wilderness resource. The challenge for visitors is to use the area in harmony with the wilderness environment and to leave no trace of your visit.

The Bisti Wilderness Management Plan (1986) details specific administrative guidance for preserving wilderness values. It also details actions to restore any natural conditions negatively affected by human influences, and to allow the area to be nurtured and preserved as wilderness. The Management Plan is available from the Farmington office of the BLM upon request.

No permit is required at this time to visit the Bisti Wilderness and to engage in primitive types of recreation. permits are required for uses such as grazing, mineral exploration, scientific research, outfitting/guiding, and commercial filming.

The Bisti Wilderness Management plan call for replacement of highway directional signs and maintenance of an undeveloped parking area, boundary fencing and signing. Development of interpretative displays and a self-registration system are planned actions as well as acquistion of an adjacent section of state land once the Gateway Coal Mine has been reclaimed.

Enjoy the Wilderness

What to do in the Bisti -- What not to do in the Bisti --

Public Access


The Bisti is accessible from Farmington, New Mexico, by traveling south on State Highway 371 for approximately 30 miles and exiting left for six miles on a gravel road that will take you past the old Bisti Trading Post to an undeveloped parking area and access to the wilderness. The area can also be approached from Crownpoint, New Mexico, by traveling north on State Highway 371 for about 46 miles and following the same gravel road described above. Travel on the gravel road is good during dry conditions but the road can get slippery and rutted during the rainy season, normally in spring and late summer.

Use of this area is regulated only to the extent necessary for its protection and your safety.

Topographic Coverage

Alamo Mesa West, Bisti Trading Post, Tanner Lake, and The Pillar 3 NE, NM.

Visitor Opportunities

The Bisti Wilderness is open year round. Most visitors enjoy a leisurely day hike by following the Gateway Wash from the undeveloped parking lot into the heart of the badlands. there are no developed trails or signs inhibiting the wilderness experience. Visitors are encouraged to discover the wonders of the wilderness.

Exploring the many carved out enclaves leading from the washes allows visitors the opportunity to experience solitude and a primitive type of recreation. The highly erosive soils often erase the footprints of others that came before and may give the sense of isolation in a foreign land. The landscape has been described as a moonscape where your imagination and artistic talents could run wild.


The Bureau of Land Management wishes to recognize the important contribution to public land management made by wilderness volunteers. They have completed numerous projects and provided an important presence in the field while doing projects they enjoy. The BLM invites anyone interested in wilderness management to join the volunteer efforts.
For further information contact:
Bureau of Land Management
Farmington Resource Area Office
1235 La Plata Highway
Farmington, New Mexico 87401
(505) 327-5344
Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau
203 W. Main - Suite 401
Farmington, New Mexico 87401
In State (505) 316-7602
Out of State 1-800-448-1240

This page is essentially a copy of the public domain pamphlet on the Bisti Wilderness provided by the BLM.

In Association with


Navajo Sacred Places, Klara Bonsack Kelley, Harris Francis, Indiana Univ Press.
Native Roads : The Complete Motoring Guide to the Navajo and Hopi Nations,
Fran Kosik, George Hardeen, Creative Solutions Pub.
Named in Stone and Sky : An Arizona Anthology, Gregory McNamee (Editor),
Univ of Arizona Press.
Talking to the Ground : One Family's Journey on Horseback Across the Sacred Land of the Navajo
Douglas Preston, Univ of New Mexico Press.
A Guide Book to Highway 66, Jack D. Rittenhouse, Univ of New Mexico Press.
Basin and Range, John McPhee, Noonday Press.
Navajo Country : A Geology and Natural History of the Four Corners Region, Donald Baars, Univ. New Mexico Press.
The Colorado Plateau : A Geologic History, Donald L. Baars, Univ of New Mexico Press.
Roadside Geology of Arizona, Halka Chronic, Mountain Press.

In Association with
In Association with

Return to Day 8