Preparing For Your Photography Tour in the Badlands of NW New Mexico

What to Expect

Northwest New Mexico’s badlands are an expansive area of surreal sandstone formations.  Nature has eroded layers of shale, sandstone, coal, and silt into delicately balanced hoodoos and towers.   It has the feel of being on another planet.

We will travel on remote dirt roads to access the badlands.  These roads can become impossible to travel on during storms when rain and snow turn to mud that is more slippery than ice, even with four-wheel drive. During the summer monsoon seasons, you run a risk of being stuck out here until the roads dry, which might be days later.  We will respect the weather forecasts.

We will hike into different areas of sculpted sandstone.  Approach hikes are relatively flat and average a few miles each way.  We have to carefully climb up short steep slopes around the formations in the erosional areas.  The formations are delicate.  Please stay off them.

It is desolate in the badlands.   I love to find a sheltered corridor to rest. There are many amazing things to discover: formations I have never seen before,  petrified logs, fossils, and narrow passageways.

These areas’ remoteness also means there are no restrooms, no cell phone reception, no lodging, no gas, or other facilities within 50 miles!

Petrified log in Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

Caprock and petrified log (left-side) in the Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

What to Bring

When photographing the badlands I prefer to minimize the photography gear I bring.  The majority of scenes I photograph are up close, within a few feet of me.  A wide-angle lens (16-35mm) works great for most compositions.

Photographic equipment

  • a tripod that can be set up very low to the ground (12 inches or less)
  • wide-angle lens (16-35 mm) and a longer zoom (70-200 mm) are ideal
  • knee pads
  • extra batteries, keep spare batteries warm in your coat pocket during the winter months
  • extra digital memory cards
  • large Ziploc bags to store lenses and cameras in during times of sandstorms
  • harness that allows you to carry your camera in rough terrain
  • If you bring additional cameras/lenses please store them inside Ziploc bags in your pack

Hiking and safety equipment

  • Headlamp with good batteries
  • Trekking poles that can fold down into your pack
  • Daypack
  • Water and food
  • Comfortable hiking shoes/boots with good ankle support
  • Rain jacket and warm clothing
  • Warm gloves and hat
  • Sunglasses, hat, long-sleeved shirt
  • A scarf or other protection for your eyes and face in case of blowing dust
  • GPS that you know how to use
Sandstone towers in New Mexico


The remoteness of the badlands comes with risks.  It is easy to become disoriented while hiking.  Weather can change suddenly.  Most hiking is on flat terrain, although you can be close to steep dropoffs at times.

Mitigation of these risks includes the following safe behaviors and practices.

  1. Record the GPS location of your vehicle before hiking into the badlands.
    • I use the GAIA GPS app on my iPhone for this.  I find this subscription app works as good, if not better than my advanced Garmin GPS receivers.  If you use a smartphone-based GPS, test it at home in airplane mode.
    • Trust the GPS. It is never wrong.  Often you can become so disoriented that you may not believe your GPS.
    • Get to know your GPS before your trip.
  2. Stay with the group! All In Light of Nature Photography workshops and tours require all clients to stay with the instructor.
  3. Ensure you have enough water for a full day hike.
    • There are no water sources in badlands.
    • The minimum amount of water to bring is 1/2 liter per hour when temperatures are cool.
    • The minimum amount of water to bring is 1.0 liter per hour when temperatures are hot.
  4. Hiking/trekking poles are recommended.  Ideal are poles you can collapse and secure on the side of your pack when you do not need them.
  5. Make sure your hiking shoes are comfortable.  Do not try to break-in new hiking shoes on a visit here.
  6. Pack high-energy food and electrolytes.
  7. Keep all your equipment with you at all times on your hike into the badlands.  Do not stash items with hopes of picking them up later.
  8. Do not bring valuables that you plan on leaving in your car.  Bring your wallet and other valuables with you on the hike.  Think before you leave home and remove items you will not hike with (i.e. laptops, binoculars, etc.).  Trailheads in the Navajo Nation are dangerous with high crime rates and little to no law enforcement.
  9. There is no cell phone service in the badlands.
  10. Sudden dust storms can impede your sight and breathing.  Make sure you have eye and face protection with you.
Petrified Wood in New Mexico

Ethical Travel in the Badlands

The “look at me” aspect of our society has impacted the badlands’ fragile ecosystem in NW New Mexico.  Visitors to the area taking selfies on top of hoodoos and posing for social media has impacted the area.  I have noticed human-made erosion and human destruction to the sandstone formations.

  1. Please do not climb on top of any sandstone or mud formation. It is illegal!
  2. Please do not litter.
  3. When nature calls, please bury any human waste far from the sandstone formations.
  4. Do not take souvenirs (e.g., petrified wood or rocks)
  5. Please do not post the locations of your photos on the internet or social media. It is perfectly acceptable to be vague (“NW New Mexico”) or to say “undisclosed location” when posting photos from these fragile areas.
  6. Minimize your impact when walking and climbing around the formations.  Avoid walking on cryptobiotic soils and fragile ground.
  7. In meeting other photographers in the badlands, move to another area, so you are not in their compositions.
  8. Keep these locations secret.  Think about the fragile ecosystem and future generations being able to enjoy it.

This fragile rock feature was kept secret for years with a social agreement not to post the location of it on the internet.  A photographer gave out the GPS location of it if people would like his Facebook page.  I predict it will be broken in a few years from someone climbing on it!

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