photography from the ground up

The Other Badlands

I spend a lot of time in the desert, more specifically, in the badlands of the San Juan Basin. And, of the nine recognized badlands located there, I usually find myself wandering in either the Bisti Wilderness, or Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. But, I want to step out of the box here and give a nod to the rest: the Ojito Wilderness, Mesa de Cuba, San Jose, Lybrook, Mesa Penistaja, Ceja Pelon, and De Na Zin.


Sedimentary rocks strewn haphazardly across bentonite mounds  just inside the boundary of the Ojito Wilderness

What exactly is a badland? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills–usually used in plural. The pre-requisites for a badlands to form are a grouping of harder sedimentary deposits: sandstone, siltstone etc. suspended in a softer matrix. As the softer material is eroded away, the harder, more dense material is left exposed, often perched on pedestals of the soft matrix.


Multi-colored bands and interesting textures abound in this small section of the San Jose Badlands.

But, at times the harder deposits may just be scattered haphazardly across a playa or alluvial plain or they may be isolated and in unexpected angles of repose. The seemingly inexplicable arrangement of the features is part of the mystique of the badlands. How did they get here and why? The answer to that question could fill a Geology text, and I am not even remotely qualified to go there. I can say, with some authority however, that the photographic possibilities are as close to infinite that you can get.

As you can imagine, the creation of such an environment takes time…a lot of time. Mesa de Cuba, the youngest is 38-54 million years old. San Jose is 48-64 million years old, Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, and Penistaja are all 60-64 million years old, De Na Zin, along with Bisti and Ah Shi Sle Pah, is 70-75 million years old, and Ojito is the oldest at 144-150 million years old. Each of the aforementioned locations have their own personality, and each of them offer there own version of timeless beauty.


An ancient juniper trunk in the Colored Bluffs section of the Ojito Wilderness

Color is an element that often takes center stage in the badlands. Depending on the mineral content of the soil, there may be layers of red, yellow, blue, or even green. Combine this palette with the other strange and, often, unexpected elements of the landscape and the other-worldly, remote locations become even more surreal.


A closer look at sedimentary rock on bentonite in the Ojito Wilderness.

Possibly the most noticeable feature of such environments are the many erosion channels and drying cracks that cut into the soft bentonite, and mudstone that form the matrices that support the entire system. When the light is right, they stand out in stark relief revealing an almost unimaginable complexity.


A small wash in a remote section of the Lynbrook Badlands

As I already pointed out, most of these locations are much smaller than their more famous big brothers: Bisti, and Ah Shi Sle Pah. But, what they lack in size, they make up for in their diversity and surreal beauty. When you add to that the knowledge that these environments have been so many eons in the making (that petrified log emerging from the side of that bentonite mound was a cypress tree in a Mesozoic swamp), and are ever evolving (those sandstone slabs you just walked over will be the caprocks of hoodoos in some distant, future landscape), exploring and photographing them becomes even more significant and mysterious.


A winter storm passes through the Mesa de Cuba Badlands

Just as you can never step into the same river twice; because of their fragile, and ever-changing nature, you can never visit the same badlands twice.

18 responses

  1. Wonderful badlands


    May 4, 2015 at 1:44 pm

  2. Fabulous pictures as always Jim and thank you for the explanation of what constitutes a ‘badland’. These are areas that have always fascinated me and your pictures make me want to pay them a visit even more. Until I started following your blog, I was only aware of the badlands of North Dakota.


    May 4, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    • Thanks Adrian. These landscapes aren’t limited to any one geographical area. They can be found anywhere the conditions are right and are well worth exploring. But, I have to warn you, they can be addicting. 🙂


      May 5, 2015 at 8:47 am

  3. Great photos. Interesting post on the badlands. 🙂


    May 4, 2015 at 4:12 pm

  4. I’ve never seen pictures of badlands. Absolutely fascinating!


    May 4, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    • They are fascinating. I have explored the various badlands here in New Mexico for years and I can still be amazed by their treasures.


      May 5, 2015 at 8:53 am

  5. Beautiful! Your pictures really live.


    May 5, 2015 at 4:58 am

  6. Gorgeous series!


    May 5, 2015 at 5:58 am

  7. Very nice Series, Jim, and it’s great to see the lesser-known areas. I spent a good amount of time in Ojito and a little in San Jose, but always wish I’d explored those more thoroughly. Lybrook in particular always intrigued me. Keep up the good work!


    May 5, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    • Thanks Jackson. There are a lot of relatively unknown badlands out there. I’ve been using Google Earth to locate promising locations and then I go out and explore them.


      May 6, 2015 at 7:36 am


    beautiful pictures! you are very talented!


    May 5, 2015 at 5:18 pm

  9. I was able to visit Penistaja a year and a half ago with a hiking buddy, and it was pretty amazing. Among other things, we saw large monolithic cairns, which we speculated might have been built by shepherds. Are you familiar with these, and do you know their origins?


    August 22, 2015 at 1:14 pm

  10. Pingback: The Other Badlands – Deep-pockets

Tell Me What You Think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s