Although not as well known as the nearby Bisti Badlands, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah is a vast, hoodoo-dominated collection of weird and wild rock formations.
“It’s a wilderness area that’s really a badlands wilderness area,” said Stan Allison, a Bureau of Land Management outdoor recreation planner. “It’s known for its outstanding badlands.”
There are no paths or signs to guide visitors through the maze of impossible shapes, but the walking is easy and the gawking is plentiful. Creature comforts, however, are non-existent.
“It’s definitely a pick your own adventure place,” Allison said. “It’s definitely for folks who are able to get out on their own and take care of themselves on their own and figure it out on their own.”
And for the wilderness wanderers, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah is perfect.
“It’s what a lot of people are looking for,” he said. “To enjoy wilderness on its own terms without any hand-holding.”
The area had been known for three striking formations, Alien Throne, King of Wings and Valley of Dreams, Allison said, but with land managers overseeing a confusing checkerboard of property boundaries, all three fall outside the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah. This remains particularly important now as COVID-19 practices have the Navajo Nation still closed to outsiders.
“It’s really important in the area to know who the land owner is,” he said. “You don’t want to be trespassing on Navajo lands without permission.”
Given the lack of signs and fences, however, this can be a challenge, although Allison recommended the use of the bureau’s hunting and recreation maps app (blm.gov/maps) that do a pretty good job of delineating an area’s overseer.
The main, but informal, trailhead off of County Road 7800, about 15 miles from New Mexico 550, provides ready access to the southern edge wilderness area via a half-mile walk.
“Walk to the north, walking across sage brush and plains and you get to the edge of the badlands area,” Allison said. “It’s pretty spectacular because the badlands stretch out in front of you.”
Yellowed sandstone caps cover stems of softer mudstone that eroded away, forming the savage scenery that looks more at home in a science fiction movie.
Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wash is lined on both sides by one intense formation after another, flashing a veritable rainbow of colors from bright oranges and yellows to muddy browns to shades of white and deep indigo.
Petrified wood abounds (do not take any), in the form of chips and logs, and even stumps complete with roots. The area is rife with fossils of both plant and animal life dating back millions of years, Allison said. Dinosaur bones have been discovered throughout the area.
“For me, in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah, it’s all kind of near,” he said. “Maybe there’s not anything more significantly spectacular than anything else.”
Given its remoteness, the area makes a wonderful site for star- gazing and nighttime photography. People may backpack and stay overnight, but there are no water sources, so it’s necessary to pack it all in.
“It’s a small enough wilderness that you can hike across it in a day,” Allison said. “We do have a lot of folks who do disbursed camping in vehicles, but an important thing to remember is do not drive into the wilderness. Another good thing to mention, drones are not allowed into federal wilderness areas.”
The effort to be there overnight, however, is well worth it.
“We get a lot of visitation, for night skies,” Allison said. “The night skies are pretty spectacular in that area because of the lack of light pollution. People enjoy the amazing night skies and when there is a full moon, you don’t even need a light to see and walk around. A lot of people enjoy the photography of the badlands at night during a new moon. That’s a really popular activity.”