Ask anyone who’s taken a national parks road trip and, trust me; they’ll agree that by the time you get to the desert regions, you’re just looking for a pool.Especially in summer. That’s why we were so intrigued by the Bisti / De-na-zin Wilderness (locals pronounce it BIS-tie-duh-NAY-zin) in northwestern New Mexico, a bizarre anomaly of inhospitable terrain that out-bads the famous Badlands of South Dakota.
True, it’s mostly desert. Hate that. But you can load up on cinnamon rolls at Frontier in Albuquerque and be there in just 3 hours. It’s also two types of wilderness in about 60 square miles. A wow attraction in a small space means big ROI on a road trip. We love that.
Along road 7297, off of Highway 371 about 40 miles of south of Farmington, is one of the more peculiar stone and dust playgrounds you’ll ever see. Fondly known as the Bisti Badlands, it’s a breathtaking vista of other-worldly rocks, boulder sculptures, pinnacles, towering mythical totems and the extraterrestrial vibe that other parts of New Mexico are more famous for.
It’s so off the beaten path, none of our friends had even heard of it. Now we are all over it.
Why hasn’t “Star Wars” shot here is our first reaction.
And our second? This is gorgeous.
It takes about 2 miles of walking in from the parking lot before the landscape goes rogue. The terrain is gravel and hard packed silt, shale, sandstone, mudstone and some coal -- sometimes firm, sometimes slog. Hike in more to petrified wood and fossils – many dinosaur ones have been found.
You can’t make much progress if you’re as into photography as we are. Starting in Bisti -- the western part of the wilderness is Navajo for “land of shale hills,” the mushroom-shaped hoodoos alone are a revelation. If you’re shooting with anything more than a cellphone, bring daylight filters as the rocks have a wide range of colors from sand to gray, rose pink to orange, black, white and chocolate brown. A polarizing filter will help the colors pop and a good skylight filter will cut the haze if it’s really hot.
The eastern part, the grasslands of De-Na-Zin, is Navajo for “cranes.” Bring binoculars because, according to the local Farmingham community site, golden eagles, prairie falcons and ferruginous hawks nest there. Scientists say today’s birds are actually descendants of once mighty dinosaurs and we imagine the boulders that appear to be busting out of their shells are T-Rex eggs that never had a chance to hatch. Until we get there…
Camping is not something we’re prepared for, as everything we read online says to tread carefully; disorienting terrain, no cell or GPS reception, no water, no help if you get lost.
Also, no bicycles, no campfires, horses okay. Sudden intense storms can rage through, literally becoming gully washers and eroding pathways you might have recognized an hour before. This is sounding better than ever.
We opt for Farmington, one of those towns like so many others you never encounter unless there’s something else taking you there. We’re surprised there are so many choices of places to stay, but this is Four Corners Country, near some of America’s most beautiful landscapes.
We mull over the Best Western Plus Four Corners Inn because it’s got free breakfast including those DIY waffles we love, and it’s about $90 a night. Also drawn to the irresistible Kokopelli’s Cave, a more luxury place ($300+) that looks rustic chic online, tucked into a cave closer to Mesa Verde. Hmm. This place is a unique B&B because it sleeps up to 4 in your own private, clifftop cave. Decision: return as second honeymooners. Finally, Home2Suites by Hilton Farmington is our choice because rooms have small kitchenettes and a little market; plus free parking, a clean indoor pool with outdoor deck, fun laundry area with workout machines nearby, a stylish lobby with free WiFi and lots of communal BBQ pits. Good for kids and pets.
The local children’s museum, the Animas Parklands with riverfront access, Animas River hiking trails, a Texas Roadhouse cafe and Target are nearby.
Did anyone say Target? We’re there.

Kyle McCarthy, author of a dozen Frommer's guidebooks and contributor to many publications, is co-founder and editor of Family Travel Forum. Checkout 51 more summer vacation ideas or connect with her @familytravel4um on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn.