Paleontologist’s Paradise in New Mexico

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Bisti Wilderness, about 40 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico, offers 45,000 acres of badlands, some of it eerily unearthly. Sixty-five million years ago, this was a tropical river delta, home to dinosaurs that are unique to this area. Paleontologists say there still are many fossils to be discovered here. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Paleontologist Sherrie Landon stoops to scoop up a fossil — a small, grayish rock, somewhat smooth on one side, dimpled with identical tiny craters on the other.

“Alligator skin,” she pronounces with certainty — a stunning statement considering we are standing in the Bisti/De-Za-Nin Wilderness in northwest New Mexico, an arid landscape dotted with alien-looking land forms. The nearest civilization is Farmington, New Mexico, about 40 minutes north and ideally located for exploring all that the Four Corners area has to offer.

We had never heard of “the Bisti” until a few weeks ago when planning a trip to the Farmington area. Bisti’s 45,000 acres of other-worldly protected wilderness is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and patrolled largely by ranger Stan Allison, who arrived here a year ago after a 13-year stint at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Today Landon and Allison are giving us a crash course in all things Bisti, and I’m mentally debating whether to tell the world about this amazing place or keep it to myself. Apparently, I’m too late for the latter. 

“Visitation is definitely increasing and I think much of it is due to folks seeing beautiful pictures on the internet,” Allison says. “We have only had a traffic counter on the trailhead parking lot for the last two years, so we don’t have hard data, but folks who have been observing visitation over the years have noticed a definite uptick.”

So the secret is out, and as we hike the valley floor, I understand why the news has spread. The colorful layered mounds and crazy formations change with every turn. But where we see arid panoramas, Landon sees former river delta, tropical forest, dinosaurs and cataclysmic wind and wave action that created this 360-degree bizarre panorama. 

We get that the multi-colored layers of earth — lignite, mud, volcanic ash, sandstone, shale and coal — were deposited over time. It’s something else, though, to imagine tropical forests and large creatures roaming this one-time Shangri-La 80 to 65 million years ago, which is to say that Bisti a paleontologist’s paradise.

“We are constantly uncovering different species and a lot of them are unique to this area,” Landon says. “The (Museum of Natural History and Science) in Albuquerque gets 95 percent of the fossils that come from here. They love me.”

One top find three years ago was the skull of a rare pentaceratops — like a triceratops but with five horns. A cast of its head and dinosaur footprints can be seen at the Farmington Museum.

Because “the fossils belong to the people” and there are plenty more to be found, Landon supervises the tedious process of removing these fossils and assures that “the land is left exactly as they found it.” This can involve National Guard helicopters, flatbed trucks, and an excavation process that places the different colored dirt in separate piles to assure that the layers are replaced exactly as they were.

The Bisti is one of the driest places on earth, so we drink liberally from our water bottles as we traverse the freakish terrain. When lunchtime arrives, we sit in a small strip of shade created by a petrified tree trunk.

“I think that people are attracted to the (Bisti) because a badlands environment is so unusual and different than hiking in the mountains or in a canyon,” Allison says. “The badlands offer an uncommon experience to travel somewhere with very little vegetation, no trails and interesting landforms both in terms of shape and color.”

It’s easy to understand how visitors can get into trouble if they aren’t prepared with sturdy shoes, hats, sunscreen, abundant water and a compass or GPS. They also should sign in and out at the parking lot register. There are no trails, signage or amenities. It is, after all, a wilderness.

So how do you check on visitors in this vast, unmarked place?

“I pretty much know where the people are,” Allison explains, probably because most don’t wander too far from the parking lot, and the only way to see the Bisti is on foot. No vehicles allowed, either, not even bicycles — although it sure would be a thrill to careen up and down this other-worldly topography.