LocationMap of badlands in the San Juan Basin
Penistaja Mesa and adjacent Ceja Pelon are reached from the east by driving 9 miles along Hwy 195 from Cuba and forking due east along a straight, unpaved track over hard-pressed earth (impassable if wet) that crosses partly agricultural land and eventually links with other routes across the Navajo reservation which provide alternative access to the mesa from the west - BIA 23 and BIA 9. After 7.5 miles along this road, a narrower, unsignposted though still generally good track forks due north, passing a spring and tank at the site of the old settlement of Penistaja, soon afterwards coming within sight of grey badlands to the east, then reaching a junction after 2.6 miles with another track to the west. The junction is a suitable parking place, as track has high verges elsewhere, with few places to stop. The main route continues northwards along the side of the mesa, past a ranch, though all the land to the south is publicly owned and so fine for primitive camping as well as hiking. The track seems very little used and the usual ranch access is probably from the north.
The south edge of Penistaja Mesa is clearly visible from the road, to the east, and doesn't look too promising at first, with muted colors, no big hoodoos and partly covered by grass and bushes. There is a group of black and grey badlands a little way south but they lack any major rock formations. However, after a short walk across sagebrush flats towards the mesa, more interesting features do start to appear including tall shapely hoodoos and sizable blocks of reddish-yellow petrified wood. After an intermediate, southwards-pointing ridge, a larger area of badlands and ravines comes into view, curving southwards and ending at an isolated pinnacle. Careful explanation reveal such features as sinkholes, balanced rocks, rocky drainages, a big pile of pure white sandstone boulders, unvegetated mud hills and multicolored, layered rocks. The furthest ridge is about 1.5 miles from the road, beyond which the land falls away rather more, becoming flatter and grassy, though the low cliffs at the edge of the mesa continue northeast. Petrified wood is scattered in various locations, seemingly not concentrated at one particular level. Vegetation in this region is typical of the high desert, with ancient, weather beaten juniper trees, a selection of cacti including the small coryphantha vivipara
, and a scattering of delicate wildflowers such as ipomopsis longiflora, tradescantia occidentalis, mirabilis linearis and herrickia glauca. Also of note are three rock cairns, constructed right at the edge of the mesa rim, each around nine feet high and apparently relatively old. They are arranged in a line, each separated by about an eighth of a mile and are thought to be a relic of ancient Navajo civilisations in this region.