“The Badlands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
The Badlands story, of which Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a part, began over 65 million years ago. While the Rocky Mountains were rising from the earth, bucking and writhing to claim their place in the landscape, massive amounts of sediments were being carried east on the wind and in the water, creating this desolate mural. Savagely erupting volcanoes in surrounding states were belching ash to combine with the Rocky Mountain sediments. The badlands are the result of layers of sandstone, mudstone, siltstone, and bentonite clay air-brushed into unusual rock formations and vivid striated buttes.
This national park was once on the eastern edge of a swamp and over time these sediments compressed and broke down, causing chemical changes that resulted in the formation of lignite, a soft coal that Teddy Roosevelt shoveled into his stove to heat his home. In these striated buttes, lignite can still be seen. Lightning strikes and fires cause the lignite to smolder, which in many cases can continue underground for years. The hardened red-brick caps, known as “scoria”, seen on many rock formations, come from the oxidation of iron released from the burning of this coal. The artistry of time, wind, and erosion have created the landscape we see today, which is constantly being transformed.
The 110 square miles of Theodore Roosevelt National Park cover three distinct areas of Badlands in western North Dakota and the Little Missouri River snakes through all of them.
- The larger South Unit within the town of Medora, where we are camped
- The smaller North Unit, ~80 miles north of the South Unit, off Hwy. 85
- Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch located between the two. Only cornerstones remain there today.
Both the North and South Units have similar topography and many of the same wildlife, deer, bison, prairie dogs. The North claims the longhorn steer and bighorn sheep, while the South boasts elk, pronghorn, and feral horses. I had also read about a phenomenon in the North Unit that Nina had introduced us to while on the coast of Oregon that has enchanted me ever since – concretions. I knew a trip up north was in my future.
On a rare sunny, rain-free day I pointed the car north on the hunt for longhorn steer and cannonball concretions. While the steer remained elusive, I found the concretions hiding in the shadows.
I could have gone back south and been happy but I had the day so a couple of hikes and a visit to a prairie dog town seemed in order. I chose the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and the Buckhorn Trail, taking me through open prairie, aromatic sagebrush, canyons with unusual rock formations, and a town where only prairie dogs are welcome, as they will let you know if you get too close.
Our visit has been more rain than sun and locals say this part of ND has had a very wet summer. On one of those cloud-filled mornings I headed out bright and early, hoping to get a hike in before the rains came. My goal was to tackle part of the Maah Daah Hey, a trail that stretches 97 miles across the National Grassland, connecting all three units of the park. Over 7 miles of it runs through the South Unit, just a couple of miles from our campground and it’s a great trail for hiking and mountain biking. Plans were thwarted when I got to the Little Missouri, a necessary water crossing I thought would be easy. Given the recent rains we have had, no way was the river allowing me passage. :(
On a rare rain-free evening I ventured into the park hoping to catch a memorable sunset on top of Buck Hill, noted for its dramatic evening views. Although the sunset didn’t wow me, what I spotted around a curve in the road did…the feral horses!
And although the sunset wasn’t spectacular, it was a nice ending to my stay at Theodore Roosevelt NP.