Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah — Spending a day hiking is probably something you've done before, but have you ever explored dinosaur country? It's possible you have and you didn't realize it.
The San Juan Basin is filled with fossils, which mean there's always a chance you could trek past an undiscovered dinosaur.
The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management's Farmington Field Office, is part of the San Juan Basin and is rich in dinosaur fossils. The area, which includes 6,563 acres, is located about 50 miles south of Farmington.
The landscape is similar to the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area with badlands, hoodoos and stunning rock formations. The area consists of layers of mudstone and sandstone rocks of the Cretaceous Period, where fossilized leaves, large petrified logs and fossils of crocodile and turtle bones have been found.
The area was first discovered by dinosaur fossil hunter Charles Sternberg in 1921, according to information provided by the BLM. Inside the area, Sternberg discovered a Pentaceratops fossil, a five-horned herbivore dinosaur that lived 75 to 73 million years ago.
Another Pentaceratops will be excavated from the area this summer, said Sherrie Landon, a biological scientist of paleontology for BLM's Farmington Field Office.
Landon calls the area a hidden gem.
"Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness is a wonderful day hike, where you won't see anyone else. The fossils that have been recovered here are unique only to this area. Scientifically, it is extremely important because of the fossils," Landon said.
There are more than 280 specimen fossils from the area on display at the New Mexico Museum of History and Science in Albuquerque and the State Museum of Pennsylvania. There are also specimen on display from Sternberg's collection at the Museum of Evolution in Sweden.
Practice your photography
Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah is an excellent place to practice your photography skills. Visit the area at different times of day and see how the sun hits the hoodoos at sunrise and sunset. It's hard not to get a great shot.
Gaze up at the stars
Places like the Bisti/De-Na-Zin and Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah are perfect sites to bring your telescope and set up for some star gazing. With the city lights far out of sight, you will get quite a show in the night's sky.
Check out Angel's Peak
Located about 30 miles southeast of Farmington, the 7,000-foot Angel Peak is visible in every direction for miles. The area, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is a great spot for a picnic or a hike.
Grab a good bite to eat
If you stay on U.S. Highway 550, stop at El Bruno's Restaurante in Cuba. The cantina, which opened in 1975, doesn't use store-bought green chile. They annually roast green chile at the back of the restaurant.
The time frame the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah captures is 75 to 65 million years ago, a 10 million year span, said Tom Williamson, curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum.
"The whole San Juan Basin of New Mexico captured sediments and fossils that were being deposited during the times while dinosaurs were living there," he said. "There is a fantastic window of fossils during that time. It is an exceptional record not only of dinosaurs, but also other animals."
And, he added places like the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah are important for unlocking secrets from our past.
"You can really get an understanding of how the record of the past is preserved and how rich the record of understanding in New Mexico is," Williamson said. "We would have no idea of what the past would be like if it weren't places like this."
Because of that, there are rules to remember when visiting these public lands.
Certain areas are closed to casual collecting of fossils. The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah visitors can collect common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources without a permit, according to the BLM. Specimens need to be small and easily transported by hand and must be collected from the surface without disturbing the ground or cultural resources. For more information contact the Farmington Field Office at 505-564-7600.
While the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah attracts visitors looking for an interesting hike and spectacular views of hoodoos, there is always a chance they could stumble across something big.
What else to do in the neighborhood
Once you venture to the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah, stay to check out the nearby attractions.
How to get there: From Farmington, take U.S. Highway 550 east toward Cuba. Turn right onto N.M. Highway 57 near mile marker 122. Drive south/southwest for about 13.5 miles. The road will form the boundary of the wilderness study area for the next 4 3/4 of a mile. The area will be on the right. The southern tip of the area has a forked access road and small parking area that is near the hoodoo city. There is a dirt road on the right side of the road that leads to the parking area. Note these are dirt access roads, and high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended. Roads may be impassible when wet.
Next month's Bucket List item: We will head to Chaco Culture National Historic Park and hike the scenic Pueblo Alto Trail to discover the panoramic views of the San Juan Basin and historic pueblos. Check out the story in The Daily Times Outdoors section on Thursday, April 24.
"You could discover a dinosaur that has never been discovered before. Where else could you do that just in your backyard?" Landon said.
Landon also urged people to take photos and map the Global Positioning System coordinates of big bones they spot and share that information with the local BLM office.
When hunting for bones, Landon suggested searching for what look like rocks or objects that seem out of place and paying special attention to areas at the base of slopes. Fossils tend to get washed out and deposited at the base of exposures, she said.
Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah isn't the only nearby area known for dinosaur discoveries. In 1997, a partial skeleton of a Tyrannosaur, a meat-eating dinosaur, was discovered in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, according to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History's website. It was dubbed the Bisti Beast.