2020 was anything but a normal year, rather it felt like some bad sci-fi movie that’s long overrun its 2 1/2 cinematic allowance. But if there’s one silver lining to the pandemic is that it’s forced me to seek out some of Mother Nature’s many hidden gems in my own backyard. During the last week of the year when I would otherwise have ventured to some sort of wintery wonderland destination, I instead hit the road for a place that I knew little about and even less of what to expect (let alone how to pronounce its name).
The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness is located in northwestern New Mexico about 60 miles south of Farmington near the Four Corners area. Its name means “gray salt”, which is indicative of one of the many colors you’ll find streaked across this badland area. Similar to other areas in New Mexico like Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, it’s a geological wonderland of sandstone, mudstone and shale forced into unusual shapes by thousands of years of wind and water, resulting in mind-bending formations like hoodoos and cap rocks. The landscape is something right out of a sci-fi movie, but one you actually want to be part of.
There are no “official” trails in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness but the area is relatively easy to explore as long as you generally follow the wash. We set our sights on the Valley of Dreams, which is a roughly 3.7 mile loop a bit further west from the marked parking area for the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness. It’s a bit more challenging to get to (see the How to Get There section below) but we were rewarded with the area virtually to ourselves. This generally flat, sandy area sits in a valley below the road so you can almost always see your car regardless of how far out you venture.
There are three main areas of rock formations (the furthest one where you loop around is the largest) connected by stretches of time-weathered barren earth. Scattered across the wash you’ll also find patches of ground littered with a kaleidoscope of rock sediment and wood in various stages of petrification. Black, white and browns mix with vivid reds, oranges and yellow to create a mesmerizing treasure hunt fit for a novice geologist.
The formations themselves will leave you awestruck. Swirls of sand stand frozen in time, some soaring high toward the sky forming shapes aptly named “Mushroom Seat”, “Chocolate Penguin King” and “Alien Throne”, others converging into cavernous crevices to climb over, around and through. In one section in particular the rock formations appear smooth and deliberate like giant bones piled high, yet steps away rough-cut rocks boast bold gradients of yellow dusted with cocoa powder creating a terrain that can only be described as otherworldly. All this against a backdrop of menacing clouds slowly moving in for extra dramatic flair. As you look around it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve been transported back in time to a prehistoric wasteland (if you’re lucky you might even find a dinosaur bone or fossil from the late Cretaceous period) or some sort of galaxy far, far away. Definitely a daytrip worth the drive.
How to Get There
The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness is located west of Nageezi off US Highway 550. From there continue on a series of gravel county roads to NM 57 and then back to another county road where you’ll want to look out for an off-road path on the right (there’s no signage but it’s clearly marked by tire treads). The road is bumpy but seems manageable as long as it’s not too wet or muddy. We were able to follow the route on Google Maps (note that there’s one quick left turn that you’ll want to watch for) and parked at the little dirt pull out where the Valley of Dreams “trailhead” is marked on the map. It’s easy to miss so keep an eye on your map. You’ll be able to see some formations down in the valley from the road so you know you’re in the right spot. Alternatively, there is another area of formations that is a bit easier to get to located right off NM 57 (look for the official sign for the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness and the more established parking area).
Also Good to Know
The best time to visit the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness is the fall when temperatures are moderate. Spring is generally windy and summers can be very hot (especially since there the area is very open with minimal shade) and are subject to monsoonal rains that could make parts of the area impassable. Winters are typically cold in the area but we were lucky to visit on a mild day in December with temperatures in the 40s, although it was pretty windy. As long as you dress accordingly the winter may also be a good time to visit.
The area is relatively remote with no facilities and limited phone service so make sure you bring lots of water and snacks and download your maps in advance if possible. This was our first visit to the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness, which we viewed as sort of a scouting trip. Next time we return we plan to explore other parts of the wildness and possibly combine it with a visit to Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Another nearby area of badlands is the Bisiti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, which is also home to otherworldly rock formations and is also on our radar for future road trips.