The Bisti Wilderness located south of Farmington, New Mexico is one of those special places on earth that never looks the same. I’ve been here several times now, both in winter and summer, and find that it is tremendously influenced by light. The influence is so strong that photos from one trip to the next are really completely different.
Unlike many remote wilderness areas in the Southwest, this spot is easy access and does not require a high clearance 4WD vehicle. As it has grown in popularity, the parking lot has grown a bit, too. Despite that, I usually see no more than one or two other vehicles, and in winter none. On one occasion there were at least 6 cars in the lot, but the large space makes actually seeing folks hiking less common. You are not following a trail, just exploring a space, so people go many directions. On my recent visit I noted that they have put up a map to help you find some of the major features.
Let me say that there are a couple of important considerations. If you are not good at hiking without a trail, pay attention to landmarks and consider a compass or GPS. An experienced person will likely find this a very easy drainage to explore, I have been to Bisti a number of times, and one thing is certain: it is not a fun place to be when the ground is wet. Extremely slick and gummy mud makes travel nearly impossible. The slightest hill becomes an impossibly slick slope. In winter the mud is often frozen in the early morning hours, only to thaw out by midday. Plan your exit while the footing is still firm.
Another somewhat exciting consideration is the possibility of a mountain lion encounter. Once when i was alone and well back in the area, I felt watched. It was near sunset and I was headed out. This was a day when the mud was leaving footprints, but not horribly slick since it was beginning to dry out. I crossed my own path on the exit, only to note my distinctive footprints with mountain lion prints on top of them. Then I knew who was watching me, though I never saw or heard the cat. Obviously, it did not tear me from limb to limb. I put my tripod up on my shoulder like a rifle to make me look bigger and just left without running. If you run, you can end up looking more like prey. The odds you will have this kind of occurrence are very slim unless you go there quite often during a very deserted time of year (this was winter).
The best known feature in the Bisti Wilderness is one called the Cracked Eggs. Nothing here is “famous”, but the eggs are perhaps the most unusual and photogenic subject. This last trip I got the first photo I liked of them. I have taken so many shots of individual eggs, combinations of eggs and eggs at sunset that it seems I would have nothing more to add. This last trip I got lucky. There was a very thin cloud cover that softened the light, but did not dull it completely. The atmosphere it imparted to the shot pleased me.
Another great feature is the petrified wood logs that are just a bit farther out than the eggs. All the main features here can be viewed in a half day hike. The distances are not great, but it takes time if you carry a camera due to the many, many photo opportunities along the way. There are exotically shaped hoodoos of varying heights. Some are shorter than a person, others much taller. They will provide many compositional options. Digital shooters may well take 500 or more shots in the course of a day when you first go to the area.
The Bisti Wilderness has a few taller hills, such as the pair of red hills that one passes to enter the main feature zones. Farther down, there are two green hills. Landmarks such as these help make navigation easier. Items such as extra water, a bit of food, a jacket in cooler seasons, a hat, and a compass are useful any time in a remote area. If you hike near dusk, you’ll want to have a headlamp. I’ve gotten confident here, so don’t carry quite so much. I do see some going in with huge backpacks for a short day hike. I carry a pair of cameras (saves trading lenses) and a water bottle as well as my tripod. I suggest being well prepared for all contingencies the first couple of hikes here. You may be the only person within 50 miles some times of year, so don’t go in unprepared. Know the forecast. You have to cross a tiny creek, but with a big downpour, those few puddles can change character and that mud is formidable.
Of course, the Bisti Wilderness is a desert, and generally you will find it sunny and dry. It is a blast to explore and presents endless photography choices. Given the remote location, it is also a great place for night sky work. In that case, you’ll likely carry a full pack and camp. Whatever you do, you will likely find this to be an other-worldly place and a place of fascinating beauty.