Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area

New Mexico > Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area
Balanced rock
Mudstone column
Oil and coal
Tall hoodoo

Like the Bisti and De-Na-Zin wildernesses a short distance northwest, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area is a little known region of fantastic eroded rocks in the high desert of northwest New Mexico, a generally flat, sandy and uninhabited land drained by shallow washes that eventually meet the San Juan River. Some of the land is part of the Navajo Indian Reservation, and other areas are used for oil and gas drilling, but most is empty, yet access is quite easy since a network of dirt roads criss-cross the desert, many in good condition except after recent rainfall when some become impassable. The WSA is centered on Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wash, a minor drainage running through a wide, barren valley but lined to the north and south by a strip of eroded cliffs, ravines and badlands containing innumerable hoodoos, balanced rocks and other strange formations, plus much petrified wood including stumps still in an upright position, complete with roots. The rocks (a mixture of sandstones, mudstones and shales, from the Fruitland Formation) have a great variety of colors, especially distinctive being the brown-ochre of the badlands and yellow-orange of some of the hoodoos; other dominant shades are grey-white of the mud hills lining the valley floor, and deep black both of the badlands higher up, and scattered coal beds closer to the wash. Although the formations extend for 6 miles, the best and most easily reached section of the WSA next to the official trailhead is just 1.5 miles across so the majority can be seen in half a day; other interesting areas on the north side of the valley and downstream to the west would need a day or more to explore fully. Besides the petrified wood, the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah region is a fruitful source of animal fossils, and many dinosaur bones have been collected here over the last hundred years; some may still be seen in situ.


Map of Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area


There are three main routes used to reach Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah WSA. One is from NM 371 in the west - along county road 7650 for 7.7 miles, south on 7870 for 9.5 miles then northeast on 57 for 2.8 miles. The BLM trailhead used to be at the end of an unsignposted half mile track that forks off northwards, the junction being a short distance west of a lone house to the south, but the track has recently been closed to vehicles, which now have to be left along road 57. Like many of the dirt roads in this area, these three routes are used by trucks from the nearby oil fields so are kept in a good state of repair. The other two approaches are from the east, both starting from US 550; most direct is via road 57, which forks off the highway at Blanco Trading Post and reaches the trailhead track 18.3 miles later, after quite a few junctions (all clearly signposted with the road number). The first few miles used to be paved but now the surface is heavily eroded and quite bumpy - driving is easier on the hard-pressed dirt after this, though the road seems rather less used by oil trucks and more by the Navajo, so is not quite as good as others around. The third route is 451/7800 from Nageezi - fully paved for a few miles but wide and well used for all the 12 miles to the junction with road 57, 3 miles from the trailhead.


The half mile approach track, now for foot traffic only, climbs to the top of a low, bushy ridge then descends the far side to a fence marking the boundary of the WSA. Ahead, the land slopes down quite abruptly by 80 feet and soon becomes completely unvegetated, consisting mostly of multicolored clayish mounds with hoodoos in scattered locations west and northeast. Beyond these formations lies a wide, flat mud plain either side of Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wash, bordered one mile away by a similar strip of badlands on the north side. There is a more extensive area of black and yellowish mounds to the northeast, split by many deep, labyrinthyne gullies largely without any eroded rock formations; the best section stretches from the lower edge of these badlands, a short distance east of the trailhead, for about 1.5 miles westwards (see topo map). Most hoodoos hereabouts consist of reddish sandstone caprocks over white/grey mudstone pillars, but more colorful yellow-orange columns are found towards the west, as are the largest pieces of petrified wood.


One way to explore the area is to walk northeast through the hoodoos around the edge of the branched ravines, then turn west along the flat land at the side of the valley, walking south towards anything that looks interesting, and returning higher up, across the yellowish badlands lining the plateau rim. The eastwards hike passes three tributary ravines, all containing red/white hoodoos and scattered petrified logs, beneath grey-black badlands. After the third and largest of the ravines, the undulating mounds become more extensive, projecting northwards a way, and also more colorful, with patches of orange and yellow in the badlands, and orange bands in some of the hoodoos. Petrified wood is more plentiful, including large trunk sections on the valley floor and logs along the edge of the badlands - here are found some of the upright stumps. Often an intact piece of the wood is surrounded by a small hill of tiny fragments, resulting from disintegration of a much larger part of the tree. The next tributary ravine appears just beyond a prominent, detached black-topped mound, as the band of eroded formations starts to narrow. The wash draining this area runs over beds of pure black coal and contains oil seeps, producing enough fluid for a shallow oil stream to flow a short distance. The west side of the ravine is bordered by some reddish mounds, marking the approximate end of the hoodoo belt. Walking back along the top of the badlands reveals smaller but still interesting groups of hoodoos and some nice undulating sandstone containing bands of yellow and orange. One characteristic feature of this area is the yellow-black hills just above the hoodoos, made of soft mudstone and split by many narrow ravines. The ground is so soft that rainwater forms vertical sinkholes in the hills and short caves in the ravines, where the flow channel disappears below ground for a while, under piles of mud, making the drainages difficult to walk along. Also, because the hillsides are steep, the surface loose, and sinkholes many feet deep may be covered by a thin roof layer, care is needed if traversing this area. Hiking is more straightforward higher up along the edge of the plateau, which is grassy and sandy.

Highlights: Fantastic, remote, little known region of hoodoos, badlands and other eroded rocks, colored many subtle shades of yellow, brown and orange. Also has much petrified wood, and occasional dinosaur fossils
Nearest city with hotels: Bloomfield, 50 miles
Management: BLM
Location: 36.147, -107.918 (trailhead)
Seasons: All year, unless after heavy rain, as the access roads may be impassable

Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah - Map

  • Topo map of Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah WSA
  • Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah - Photographs

  • 42 views of Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah (gallery, slideshow)
  • QTVR panorama
  • photograph
    Isolated yellow hoodoos
    Upright petrified tree stump

    Narrow ravine
    Graceful hoodoos

    Lichen on petrified wood

    Short cave
    White and brown rocks
    Nearby places Similar places

    Chaco Culture National Historical Park (13 miles) - extensive ruins of ancient villages

    De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area (10 miles) - colorful, low relief badlands containing innumerable eroded rock formations
    Nearby places Similar places

    Coal Mine Canyon, Arizona - multicolored ravine on Navajo land

    Paria Rimrocks, Utah - hoodoos near the Paria River


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