An eerie otherworldliness surrounds Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, especially when the moon casts shadows across the hoodoos, weird rock formations with mazelike passages. Difficult as it is to believe, this stark landscape was once buried beneath an ancient sea. As the water slowly receded, prehistoric animals roamed about, living off of each other and the lush foliage that flourished along the many riverbanks. Eventually, the water disappeared, leaving behind a 1,400-foot-thick layer of jumbled sandstone, mudstone, shale, and coal that lay undisturbed for 50 million years. Then, 6,000 years ago, the last ice age receded, exposing fossils and eroding the rock into the fantastic hoodoos you see today. The soil underfoot now lies soft and yielding, wrinkled like the surface of stale popcorn. Very few animals inhabit the area--save a handful of cottontail rabbits, coyotes, badgers, and prairie dogs. Similarly, very little vegetation grows out on the badlands, only some sagebrush, tumbleweed, and cacti. Researchers believe that dinosaurs passed into extinction around these parts, so keep an eye out for fossils (if you find one, remember that removing fossils is illegal).
Precipitation in this wilderness averages a mere 8 inches a year, and that typically holds off until July and August when temperatures rise to sweltering highs. When a downpour does occur, the soil, typically baked to ceramic hardness by the sun, softens into a slippery, yielding substance. The sun’s heat, both direct and reflected from the sand, can be surprisingly intense, even at 80 degrees F. In summer, temperatures can quickly climb from 65 in the morning to close to 100 in the afternoon. Winter temperatures can get as cold as 10 degrees in the mornings. Elevation averages around 6,300 feet and the most striking scenery is in the southern two-thirds of the area.
The Wilderness boundaries enclose parcels of private Navajo land. Please respect private property. Carry a map, a compass, and plenty of water. Backpacking and horse packing are unrestricted, but campfires are forbidden. There are two main access points to this area, one is the Bisti Access which has no trails. Visitors may walk into the area in many directions to explore, but will need to keep track of their surroundings to find their way back to their vehicles. The second access point is the De-Na-Zin Trailhead which only extends about 3/4ths of a mile to the De-Na-Zin Wash. As this is a wide-open area with little vegetation, many visitors choose to explore beyond this trail. Chances are you won't encounter a soul here.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.