Fairy Chimneys: The Secret Surreal Landscape of the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Desert

The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah desert seems to come out of a Martian setting, with its ocher-colored “fairy chimneys.” It is one of the most surreal places in the world.

Gabriela Castillo

Landscapes that seem to be from another world rise among the main regions of the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah desert, a prehistoric complex within the arid San Juan Basin, in northeastern New Mexico. Here you can find the most enigmatic fossils that not only belong to dinosaurs but also to trees that have been petrified and left standing, as well as the famous “fairy chimneys.”

With its ochre colors and surprising geology of millions of years, the landscape sculpted by the passage of wind and sediments looks like a painting from Mars itself. It is located in the middle of the New Mexico desert and covers 6,563 acres of land, a hidden wonder where natural rock columns called hoodoos or ‘fairy chimneys’ can be observed.

Fairy - fairy chimneys: the secret surreal landscape of the ah-shi-sle-pah desert

The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Desert

The name Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah comes from the phonetic transliteration of Navajo ‘áshįįh łibá,’ which means ‘gray salt.’ This desert is so peculiar due to its geological age that not only are fossils of current plants and animals found, but also remains of prehistoric crocodiles, turtles, fish, and dinosaurs scattered throughout the terrain. But what sets it apart from other paleontologically important regions is that in this desert region, there is also petrified wood, and vertical tree stumps with roots that speak of a prehistoric planet, a landscape that has remained intact over time.

With its hoodoos, also called “fairy chimneys,” it surprises its visitors. Fairy chimneys are tall and thin rock spires that have been sculpted by the passage of wind and water over sandstone, creating an extremely peculiar landscape over millions of years. Some of the spires are only the size of a person, but many others rise hundreds of meters toward the sky.

Ah shi sle - fairy chimneys: the secret surreal landscape of the ah-shi-sle-pah desert

Geologically, the composition of the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah desert is given by layers of sandstone, shale, mudstone, and bituminous coal, which according to experts, were deposited in the region 75 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period. It took 75 thousand millennia of wind, water, and ice for weathering and erosion to finally give life to the layers of ochre colors that are responsible for the surreal landscape.

Currently, the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah desert is protected by the United States Wildlife Study Area, and the extraction of fossils is prohibited. However, in the past, it was so important that figures like Charles Hazelius Sternberg considered a dinosaur hunter, visited the region in the summer of 1921. Hazelius managed to collect different fossils of giant reptiles of the ceratopsid type, which are now exhibited at the Museum of Evolution at the University of Uppsala, Sweden.

Story originally written in Spanish by Alejandra Martínez in Ecoosfera