Walking with Dinosaurs in the Fossil Forest Resource Natural Area

Let’s enter a prehistoric wonderland at New Mexico’s Fossil Forest Resource Natural Area, a hidden gem in the San Juan basin. While it may not be on everyone’s travel radar, this small but marvelous natural wonderland packs a punch. We’ll wander through its surreal badlands, where eroded geology and hoodoos will spark your imagination and leave you breathless. And, best of all, it has fossils! Here, history comes to life, and where I was lucky enough to walk among the dinosaurs. Settle in, and let’s embark on our journey to discover the timeless magic of Fossil Forest!

To understand more of its significance, we need to go back in time, around the 1920s, when scientists surveyed New Mexico for resources. At that time, archeologists and paleontologists scoured the Southwest looking for their version of treasure. Once located, the archeologists excavated their find. In many cases, the excavations were crude and quick, the goal being to find any artifacts, then send those off to major museums and private collectors. Paleontologists did the same. Once they found fossils, they quickly excavated the specimen and sent it to museums and collectors. Records, if any, were scant and, as often as not, wildly incomplete and inaccurate.

In short, it was a heady time, and paleontologists removed significant yet lightly documented discoveries from the area. I am not casting judgment, of course. It was a different era, and the goals were only sometimes preservation or conservation.

But, we are focusing on Fossil Forest. There were significant fossils found here. A stegosaurus with a seven-foot skull was discovered and excavated by one report. Several other noteworthy finds came from here as well. However, records are, for the most part, inaccurate, and there is some guesswork involved. The area was left untouched after that, and it faded from view.

As a side note, I spend a good deal of time researching my adventures. This PDF will give you an idea of the kind of materials that I use in my research.

Don't say that I didn't warn you before reading it, though.

In the late 1970s, scientists again surveyed the area for resources and “rediscovered” it. They found at least five, and maybe as many as twelve, dinosaur quarries and, with careful research, tied back to some museum specimens. Since it was clear that the Fossil Forest contains significant fossils, it was set aside as a Resource Natural Area to protect it.

And, for the most part, wholly forgotten once again after that. There is a pattern here, but considering its small size, this is hardly surprising. These areas are right up my alley, and I delight in discovering and exploring them. It isn’t often that I can find an area, such as this one, “lost in time,” but when I do I make the most of it.

Today, there are no roads leading into the Fossil Forest. No rangers or entrance stations are anywhere to be found. There are no signs whatsoever. There are sections of a barbed wire fence that might belong to the ranchers who put them up to protect their land, not the resource area. To all appearances, the Fossil Forest exists only on a map.

Yet, it does exist, it is accessible, and its badlands have a beauty all their own.

Getting to it is not difficult once you know about it. A well-graded county road comes within a mile of it. Once you park alongside the road, it is an easy one-mile overland walk to reach the area, although you’ll need to check a GPS to know when you have reached the boundary.

During your approach, the badlands appear as low hills, but as you get closer, you realize they are far taller than they first seem.

Approaching Fossil Forest Natural Resource Area. Barren ground, with scattered pebbles, is in foreground, with taller hoodoos and a rock wall can be seen in the background
Approaching Fossil Forest. Tap/click for a larger view.

At first, I was disappointed. The badlands appeared insignificant, and I thought how easy and uneventful it would be to reach the top. In that, I was utterly wrong. The closer I approached, the taller they became. It didn’t take long to dissuade my opinion that I would “simply walk over them.” I would explore them, of course! And then I would have to find a way around them. I adore surprises like this.

A closer view of the badlands. Low rock-strewn hills are in the foreground while hoodoos are in the mid ground. Beyond that, a tall steep wall rises up.
Inside Fossil Forest. Tap/click for a larger view.

This photograph showcases the harsh beauty of true badlands. Today, they are inhospitable to plant life, and nothing can make a foothold to grow here. Even if a plant could find a purchase, there is no soil to root in. And even if there were, the winds would make short work of its precarious foothill. And that gives rise to beauty.

What remains are abstract rock formations and colors. Small pebbles and larger rocks decorate the landscape. The colorful layers of strata tell a geologist when each formed, but to my eyes, it creates colorful patterns. All around me, the barrenness gives rise to splendor.

As with other New Mexico badlands, you’ll find all sorts of twisted and tortured hoodoos. But there are no trails or well-known locations here in the Fossil Forest. It is up to me to explore it on my own. That’s just the way I like it!

There is something phenomenal about being in a badlands by yourself. Unlike the Bisti, which is becoming quite crowded, solitude is yours. I was free to roam as I would without seeing anyone else. I didn’t see footprints leading out to it, even though I looked for them. As far as I could tell, I was the first person to venture out there in a long time.

I was expecting to see two things: petrified wood and hoodoos. Meanwhile, I was also hoping to find a fossil. I immediately found a large petrified log, crossing the first item off my list.

A large and broken petrified log rests on the desert floor

The log rested right on top of the ground where it fell only 65 million years ago. Once a nice-sized tree, it reminded me that this area was once a lush and green forest. The forest would have been all around me, as far as the eye could see. What sounds would have filled the air? What insects would have buzzed around me? And that thought caused me to remember that dinosaurs were here, too. I was unquestionably now walking with the dinosaurs!

Not far from the petrified log, I spotted a large pile of petrified wood scattered about. Judging by the pieces, the trees were smaller than the previous log. What caused that? There is no way to know, but it appears that somebody, or something, spread it only yesterday. I had to reach down and feel the now-stone tree to confirm it was rock, not wood.

Hundreds of small pieces of petrified wood are scattered about

And now that I was in the badlands proper, the hoodoos were everywhere! The second item on my list is now complete. I set aside my initial impression that the Fossil Forest was unassuming and instead focused on the fact that this is a hidden gem.

A small trail leads out between many short hoodoos

As expected, the hoodoos came in all shapes and sizes. Some small, some larger. Some twisted and some straight. Erosion does funny things, cutting a deep channel here and leaving a hoodoo there. Fossil Forest was no different from other badlands in this respect, and I could, and did, spend hours poking around. I did plenty of backtracking, too, since a way forward is not always possible.

As I explored, I glanced down at a group of small rocks. Casually picking one up, I was stunned to realize I was holding a fossil!

David is holding a small fossil showing a leaf in his hand

The fossil was a plant of some sort, and I marveled that it made it through the eons to reach me. Once again, I was in the moment so long ago. Indeed, I kept shifting between past and present during my entire exploration of the area.

The contrast between yesterday and today is striking. I might have been resting against a tree trunk while brushing aside a fern. Perhaps I could hear the trickle of a nearby stream and refilled my canteen from its fresh cool water. I would have kept a keen ear out for predators, too, and the danger would have been genuine. Remember, dinosaurs are here with me.

The dichotomy is striking and one that kept coming back to me. As I write this, I have difficulty reconciling then and now. What was once green and lush is now barren and lifeless, yet beautiful in both instances. Dinosaurs and leaves become rock, indelible in time, waiting for a recovery in the future.

I kept exploring, for in addition to looking for hoodoos and fossils, I also wanted a showcase scene to photograph. I found several locations that almost fit the bill, but none that touched me in the way I needed it to. With my eyes peeled, I continued to make my way around the badlands, skirting the edges.

Eventually, I could see beyond the badlands into the rest of the natural area. I realized that I was on a high vantage point. Beyond, the badlands petered out into a largely unremarkable landscape. Yes, there would be plenty of fossils there, but to my photographer’s eye, it wasn’t what I was looking for. However, I kept pushing on.

Eventually, my exploration and patience paid off! There, before me, was the perfect composition I was seeking.

A view of Fossil Forest. Low bushes are in the foreground, and very small hoodoos can be seen. A gentle ravine begins and leads to tall hills in the background. Low red-colored mounds are visible in the mid ground. Clouds in a blue sky are above.
Fossil Forest. Tap/click for a larger view

A cacophony of colors spread before me, although they were all variations of brown. Still, a streak of red-colored rocks cuts right through the middle, offering a striking counterpoint. In the background, the rocks reach toward the sky, greeting the vanguard of an oncoming storm. And in the foreground, a few last bushes struggled to survive on the edges of the badlands. All in all, Fossil Forest brings comes together in a classic New Mexico landscape.

Bring home Fossil Forest

You can bring Fossil Forest home! And I can create a custom piece, both in size and format, just for you. Contact me to see how easy and rewarding this is.

The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness is nearby

Funny enough, the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness is very close to Fossil Forest. It’s just a couple of miles as the crow flies. And, as you may recall, I absolutely adore the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah. It’s one of my favorite places anywhere, and not surprisingly, it shares many of the same features.

Here are a couple of my favorite photographs from the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah!