Bizarre, Broken, Bewitching ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 2)

“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

Storm clouds build over the Little Missouri
Storm clouds build over the Little Missouri

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.



57 thoughts on “Bizarre, Broken, Bewitching ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 2)

  • Another great post! The “badlands” don’t look so bad. It’s fascinating what mother nature does with the land. Your pictures are great, as usual. Glad to see you were able to get around so much of the park, regardless of what else has been going on in your life. It’s nice to see bison somewhere other than Yellowstone. Those horses were beautiful. This looks like a tempting place to visit. Hope things are going better for you. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Joan. The truck is back, the warranty work approved, hubby is back, and we are on the road again. All is good! Hope you are doing well.

  • Love the three “B’s” title and reading your story I could tell you were bewitched from your hikes, LuAnn. Your pictures are enticing me to make sure that this park is in our list for next year. Do you bring a tripod in your hikes?

    • I normally don’t bring a tripod unless it is a short hike. I have a smaller tripod but I tend to forget about it. Theodore Roosevelt, at first glance, was not a park I was too excited about, but like other parks, you have to get off-road to really experience them. I wish I would have had better weather but they can’t all be sunny days, can they? 🙂

      • My tripod does not get as much use as it should. It seems to be a bit of a hassle to carry it with everything else I am normally schlepping around.

  • Gorgeous photos LuAnn! I would love to check out the Badlands. I have never been yet it isn’t too far away. I love the photos of the horses and the landscape is beautiful. Thanks by the way for that beautiful comment you left for my Shot@Life post. I truly appreciate it! 🙂

    • My pleasure Nicole and I meant every word. I really enjoyed Teddy Roosevelt NP and just wished I had had better weather to experience it. 🙂

  • Looks like you made the best of your stay. That park has interested me for sometime and I hope to make it up there next summer….. with hopefully less rain. I would’ve been equally ecstatic encountering the wild horses 🙂

    • I wasn’t sure about the park at first but the more I saw the more it grew on me. And when I saw the horses, well, I was sold on the park. I just wish I could have done more of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, but crossing the river after all the rain we had was not something I wanted to attempt by myself.

  • Isn’t it wonderful that we law laws that protect this precious land of ours.

    Bewitching is the perfect word!

  • This area looks very similar to the Alberta Badlands near Drumheller here in Alberta. You have taken some beautiful shots. So interesting about the lightening causing ignition and underground smouldering for years.

  • What wonderful pics…and a great story to go with it! I’m particularly enthralled by the wild horses. You managed some great shots despite rain. It looks lovely and sunny in all of them.


    • I had a few sunny days when I ran around like crazy to capture as much as I could. All the rain they have had this summer made for lots of beautiful green hills. 🙂

  • Nice geology lesson there LuAnn. Landscapes like the Badlands provide a great demonstration of the geologic time scale. In geology, 10 million years is a blink of an eye. But when you think that the Rockies were rising, volcanoes were erupting, and wind and rain were chewing away at the rocks all the time, the time scale makes more sense. ~James

    • One of my favorite pieces of this blogging process is what I learn about the places we visit. Such a beautiful country we live in! 🙂

  • These are fantastic LuAnn. I bet he never knew he would have 110 square miles in his name. All George Bush (Sr and Jr) got was a shrubbery.

  • We’re heading out that way next summer, so I’m absorbing your posts with enthusiasm! Question for you ….. when you are hiking those areas, do you worry about snakes? Do you have special foot-gear?

    • I was told there are prairie rattlesnakes around so I was aware of my surroundings but I didn’t see any snakes. I always wear hiking boots when I do trails unpaved trails.

      The bison this time of year are the bigger concern, as it is the rut and the bulls can be a bit aggressive, but if you give them a wide berth all is well. The rangers at the Visitor Center are so helpful. 🙂

  • It looks as though you were the only person on the trails, LuAnn! Your photos are gorgeous, even though the weather was challenging. Your captures of the wild horses are just wonderful. You definitely made the most of your time there!

  • So beautifully written:) I love the flow of words as you tell the development of this area. Gorgeous photos. Glad you had a few sunny days to share the rocks…I love those rocks:)

    • Some of it is fragile, as it is sandstone but I suspect the red-bricked caps are fairly hard given the temperatures they have been exposed to.

  • I love a bit of rugged country, it’s always good to learn about the geology of the country you walk upon and now I shall be looking for places where I can go and experience the same thing. Alliteration also allieviates ailments of a arduous afternoon!

    • Alliteration…I would love to hear your ramblings on those onerous afternoons. Perhaps you could share some of them in a blog post. 😉

      Stay tuned, I have much more rugged country coming up!

  • I was much more impressed by this Park than I expected. Seems we saw and enjoyed the same impressions.

    I’m home after a five day NC Mountain weekend at friends. And getting ready for a month in Maine!

    We are surely blessed to be able to enjoy the variety of this great land as we do.

    Hope all’s well,


    • Norm, After spending time in places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, I wasn’t expecting much from this park, but like most places, if you look a little closer, you find some lovely gems.

      We are truly blessed to have such beauty in this country.

      Enjoy your time in Maine, a state we still need to explore.

      Take care!

  • lovley, just lovely, and surely your followers wish they could free their schedules so that they could do the same thing…

    those ‘feral’ horses make such a pastoral scene… the word feral always makes them see as if their place there is wrong, but a rose by any other name………… they’re roses for sure, at least in my book!

    • I know what you mean about the word feral. I used the word that the park does but they did not even seem wild to me, more inquisitive and protective of the herd. They were a delight to see, since I had only one more day left to find them in the park.

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