Ah-shi-sle-pah Wilderness Study Area
Located in the northwestern part of New Mexico, Ah-shi-sle-pah is one of the more remote treasures of the San Juan Basin. Multicolored badlands, funny-shaped spires, eroded sandstone hoodoos and unique geological formations – anybody who has fallen in love with the lunar landscape of the Bisti Badlands or De-Na-Zin Wilderness will love this place. Although there are many similarities between them, Ah-shi-sle-pah has some peculiarities and a magic all its own. It’s a land of yellow cap rocks and scenic ochre or olive colored bentonite hills – beautiful and soft colors hardly seen elsewhere!
Due to its geological and paleontologic values, a stretch of the broad Ah-shi-sle-pah Wash (formerly known as “Meyer´s Creek“) and its southern branch were designated as Wilderness Study Area (WSA) in May 1992. This unit encloses an area of about 26,5 km² and is located in the arid Greater Bisti Complex between the Bisti Wilderness and Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. It’s a premier location for scientists and it was prospected by world renowned dinosaur hunter Charles Hazelius Sternberg in the summer of 1921. The highlights of his collection are shown at the Museum of Evolution in Sweden – among them skulls and bones from 75 million years old late Cretaceous dinosaurs, crocodiles and turtles.
Ah shi sle pah has not changed much since Sternberg explored it. Even today, in some parts of the wash, you will be able to spot bone fragments. They resemble petrified wood, but their honeycomb-like structure distinguishes them. Scientists, such as field paleontologist Robert Sullivan, continue to search for bones, skulls, teeth and whole skeletons of the ancient beasts buried in the mud hills. Over 280 specimens of fossil vertebrates have been isolated from the sedimentary Kirtland and Fruitland Formation and are now exhibited at the New Mexico Museum of History and Science in Albuquerque and at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
The first time Steffen and I had the opportunity to visit Ah-shi-sle-pah was in October 2006. The weather wasn’t good back then, but the scenery was so impressive that we decided we had to come back as soon as possible. We ventured out there again in October 2007 and spent two days at this remote place shooting many pictures and rediscovering the “mushroom cities” and petrified stumps. It amazes me how the stumps look as if the trees were cut down just a couple of weeks ago. The uplift position and their large petrified roots make them quite unique.
How to get there: The Ah-shi-sle-pah WSA is located 60 mi south of Farmington or Bloomfield. It’s an 1.5 hour’s one way drive, first along Hwy 371 until milepost 61 then following CR-7650 for 7.8 miles. Turn right onto CR-7870. After another 9.4 mi you’ll arrive at the junction with Hwy 57. Turn left and 2.8 mi further down look for a track leaving the road on the left side. Leave your car here at 36.139597, -107.920863 and follow the trail for 0.6 mi to 36.147611, -107.919082, where the old official parking place was located during our first visit (it changed in 2011!). And from there head straight further north up to the rim. The trail is not marked on common topographic maps, but you can easily find it on Google Earth.
When coming from Farmington you’ll need to drive 20.5 miles on dirt roads. But CR-7650 and CR-7870 are usually passable for normal passenger cars and well maintained since they are regularly used by the big trucks of the Bisti Oil Field. Nevertheless be aware that these roads can easily turn into a “mud trap” after heavy rains.
Ah-shi-sle-pah can also be accessed from the East. Head south on Hwy 550 from Bloomfield, turn right on Hwy 57 at the Blanco Trading Post (mile marker 123.2) and continue southwest for more or less 18 miles until you reach the unsigned track to Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah on your right hand side.
Check out our Ah-shi-sle-pah topo map for directions, more GPS waypoints and GPX-track.
What to see: Most of the Ah-shi-sle-pah Wash is rather boring, just gray and barren land without any hoodoos or other unique rock features. But there are some really amazing spots along the southern edge of the wash near the parking lot. If you head north you’ll soon reach the rim and look at the first small hoodoo city. It’s not easy to find your way down to the wash here. If you continue your hike along the rim to your left side there is much to see on the next 1.5 miles. But try to get down to the wash somewhere otherwise you’ll miss Sternberg’s “Palmetto Hoodoo” site, the rounded stones of “Rock Garden” and less than a mile to the west there is our personal highlight, the “Yellow Hoodoo Gang” (named by Steffen; 36.151017, -107.931419).
You can also explore the eastern part of Ah-shi-sle-pah wash. It is less colorful and looks more like the Bisti Badlands, but nevertheless you might find some nice-shaped gray cap rocks over there too. And I’m pretty sure that for hoodoo aficionados this adventure won’t be in vain either! ;-)
Pictures: There are more pictures in our Ah-shi-sle-pah Wilderness album.
Animals: Rabbits and lizards are common sights in Ah-shi-sle-pah, but unfortunately we didn’t meet any of the beautiful collared lizards. Neither did we see one of the eagles or endangered ferruginous hawks that nest in this undeveloped landscape. Be also aware of rattlesnakes!
Plants: Vegetation is scarce at Ah-shi-sle-pah. Most of the hills are covered with mud interspersed with a few yuccas, sagebrush, saltbrush and grasslands.
Important advice: Any kind of fossil collecting is prohibited by law. Leave nothing but footprints take nothing but pictures (and time )! And bring along a topomap and – if available – a GPS device so you won´t get lost. It´s a truly wilderness experience!
Elevation: 1.900-2.000 m
Last but not least the gink to a good paleontology museum: www.nmnaturalhistory.org
Wow, so eine grandiose Landschaft hatte ich wirklich nicht erwartet, zumal ich vorher noch nie etwas von dem Gebiet gehört hatte. Wirklich beeindruckend !!!
Vielen Dank für den ausführlichen Bericht und die schönen Fotos !
Werde dann mal versuchen, das Gebiet in unserer März-Tour noch mit einzuplanen, wir wollten ja sowieso zu den Bistis.
Hallo Isa und Steffen,
danke für die Publizierung dieses tollen Gebietes und die schönen Bilder. Für 2008 reicht es nicht mehr, aber 2009 werden wir auch wieder New Mexico einplanen.
I have trekked to many places but I have not come close to anything as strange as Ah-shi-sle-pah. Only nature can come up with these designs.
Yes, the American Southwest is absolutely amazing. And the most amazing of all: There are still a lot of places out there just as fascinating as Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah or the Bistis!
Hello, Ive been to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash twice now because it is so fascinating. Fortunately, I live in Phoenix so its not too far away. Planning to return next October.
Have a nice trip George! It is great living so close to it! We will not be shooting in NM this year, but I know that we can’t resist those hoodoos for a really long time.
Wow, Isa, your photographs are amazing and inspirational. I’m jealous of you 2! You have such talent.
Hi George again and thank you for your nice comments!
We just try our best and the Western US is one of the greatest places on Earth to set up a tripod! No way running out of photo ops there!
Best wishes from Europe,
Isa & Steffen
Hello, I drove to Ah-shi-sle-pah in March and discovered the roads leading to the wash and your campsite were closed by the Bureau of Land Management(BLM).
Signs in the roads restricted motor vehicle traffic traveling beyond 20 meters off Route 57.
I confirmed the closure with at the BLM office in Farmington, NM.
Just a heads up. Loving your work as always.
George, thanks a lot for this update! The additional 0.6 mi is not that bad, but nevertheless it’s a little bit sad since we really loved to camp there at the old official parking place.
The clarity in your post is simply excellent and i could assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your feed to keep updated with forthcoming post.
Danke für die ausführlichen Berichte zu diesem Gebiet. Wir waren im September 2012 dort und es war nicht einfach, die “Yellow Hodoos” zu finden – aber letztendlich haben wir es doch geschafft…
Vielleicht wäre es ganz hilfreich, einige Worte über die Erreichbarkeit, sozusagen den “final approach” dorthin zu verlieren:
die Hodoos liegen ziemlich weit oben, wenn man von unten (vom Wash) herkommt… und dann muss man dort hinauf und das ist gar nicht so einfach… und hinunter oder hinüber zum festen Rand des Gebierts muss man auch wieder… nicht minder tricky… man muss schon gut aufpassen, nicht ab- oder auszurutschen. Wenn was passiert, ist man im Zweifelsfalle völlig allein dort und das könnte fatal enden.
Hallo Gero, das stimmt, dass man möglichst nicht alleine Herumwandern sollte. Das betrifft eigentlich die meisten Wildnisgebiete in den USA. Die Yellow Hoodoo Gang erreicht man meiner Meinung nach noch verhältnismäßig leicht, aber ausgerutscht bin ich auf dem rutschigem Lehm/Steinchen-Boden leider auch schon mal in den Bistis… keine angenehme Erfahrung…
For some reason the beauty of a desert is unmatched by any other places. The place iteself can be unforgiving but the pictures you shared really are perfect. Hope someday I can go there.
Thanks Pratik, and happy trails!
I am very impressed by the passion and execution you both bring to your images. They are simply extraordinary! I just had a half day last year to barely explore the Bisti Badlands and made a promise to get back to the area. Then I discovered the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area and have made plans to visit there at the end of this month. The info you provide here will be invaluable in assisting me. Should I encounter any big changes in access I will certainly let you know. I really have appreciated all the effort you have put into this website and it has helped me in the past when I visited Devil’s Fire (Little Finland) for a coupe of days back in 2012. Keep up this great work and hope you get back to this area soon.
Thank you, Ross! Hope you’ll have a great time at Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah!
Looking forward to returning to the States soon. Maybe next Spring, miss the Southwest!