Earth Notes: New Mexico's Bisti Badlands

Mar 27, 2013

In the northwest corner of New Mexico, not far from Chaco Canyon, there's a geologic wonderland that's weird even by the amped-up standards of the Colorado Plateau...

Bisti Badlands, New Mexico
Credit BLM New Mexico

It's the Bisti Badlands - a place where white, grey and brown hills melt into mud-cracked washes; where dark seams of coal stripe the land; where fresh fossils weather out of outcrops; and where rock dissolves into outlandish forms.

The Bisti Badlands contain entire rooms furnished with pillows, benches and chaise lounges of rock, their floors decorated with natural mosaics. Galleries of fanciful hoodoos look toward the setting sun in the shapes of gargoyles, toadstools, the heads of cats and long-necked camels or anything else the imagination sees.

Hoodoos exist because of alternating beds of sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal and silt in the Fruitland Formation. Some layers are soft, others, hard, so they weather at different rates.

The Fruitland and overlying Kirtland formations date to the end of the Cretaceous period, 60 to 80 million years ago. The sediments accumulated on deltas and river plains along the shore of the last great inland sea in this part of the world.

The badlands are a paleontologist's paradise. Fossils of turtles, fish, crocodiles, clams and large dinosaurs have been found here. One spectacular tyrannosaur was dubbed "Destroyer of the Badlands." Entire stumps of petrified wood are common.

Luckily, most of the Bisti lands are wilderness, with a capital "W," where visitors can wander at will in an outdoor "museum" that displays the artful works of weathering and erosion.