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.

 

 

Rugged, Desolate Beauty ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 1)

“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.”  ~  Theodore Roosevelt

Clouds dance across the Painted Canyon, first stop in the park off Hwy. 94
Clouds dance across the Painted Canyon, first stop in the park off Hwy. 94

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after our 26th President of the same name, lies in western North Dakota.  Part of Teddy’s spirit may still roam here, given his love for this land, for it was his time spent here that played an instrumental role in his development of conservation policies that remain in place today.

The Lakota people were the first to call this territory the “badlands” due to lack of water, extreme temperatures, and the rugged terrain.  Teddy Roosevelt first came to the North Dakota Badlands in September 1883 to hunt bison and was enchanted by its desolate, melancholy beauty.  It was the death of his beloved wife Alice Lee, due to complications from childbirth, and mother Mittie, who succumbed to typhoid fever, both in the same house, on the same day, February 14, 1884, hours apart, that brought Roosevelt back to these lands, heartbroken and seeking nature’s healing powers.

Bison freely roam these plains.
Bison freely roam these plains.

We entered the gateway town of Medora on a hot, muggy day so we chose the 36-mile scenic drive of the South Unit over hiking that first afternoon.  After spending much time in similar parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, this park (imho) paled in comparison.  But the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here, as in digging a little deeper I have found some hidden gems.  But before I get to the good stuff, I’ll share a bit of a saga that’s been going on behind the scenes here.

Terry taking in the views.
Terry taking in the views.

Unfortunately the day of our arrival we learned just how much Terry’s father’s health had deteriorated over the past few days.  We both felt it imperative that Terry head to Ohio now instead of wait until the 25th of this month as he had planned.  What to do about an airport and flight was the next question, as we are in the middle of nowhere. The closest “big” town to us is Dickinson, 40 miles away, but surprisingly learned they have an airport another 7 miles outside of town.  So with flight booked and bags packed, we headed for the airport the next day, a very rainy day at that.

With Terry safely at the airport, I headed back to the park.  As I approached Dickinson a message scrolled across my dashboard stating STOP SAFELY NOW, and within seconds the truck decided to stop me.  There I sat in the driving rain blocking traffic, which never makes for happy drivers. With Terry at the airport contacting Ford and a tow service, I directed traffic while drivers scowled at me through rain-streaked windows.

Fast forward and an easy fix soon became anything but as the sensor broke while being removed so now we are awaiting parts and dealing with a warranty company that has been less than cooperative.

Many hours later, in a rental car headed back to the park, the skies opened and I found myself wishing for an ark.  Suffice to say the drive back at 40 mph was the longest 1.5 hours I have spent in some time.  I later learned that we had received 6-8″ of rain in a matter of two hours, which is probably why I felt I floated home most of the way.  But Terry is where he needs to be and I arrived safely.

The silver lining in this ongoing saga was a visit from dear Colorado friends Stan and Marilyn.  For two days we enjoyed great conversation, lots of laughs, and a lovely hike. They agreed to a hike I really wanted to do in the remote northwest corner of the south unit, the Petrified Forest Loop Trail. I was determined to hike it solo or with friends but agreed that it is probably best done with others, especially if the solo woman is somewhat directionally challenged. 😉  The petrified forest, hard sandstone spires topped with caprocks, and dodging bison during their rut made for an interesting hike.

We rounded out our time together with a stroll through Medora and a lovely dinner at Theodore’s, which we all highly recommend.   The food was excellent and the company, of course, priceless.  I can’t thank them enough for brightening up my week.  We look forward to seeing them again soon in Colorado.

Next up:  More hiking, prairie dog towns and concretions, my favorite!

The Tallest of Them All ~ Muir Woods National Monument

Advice from a Tree:  Stand tall and proud/Sink your roots deep into the earth/Be content with your natural beauty/Go out on a limb/Drink plenty of water/Remember your roots/Enjoy the view!  ~  (c) Ilan Shamir  http://www.yourtruenature.com*

The tallest of them all is the Coast Redwood, reaching as high as 380 feet up into the heavens.  We had already seen her bulkier relative, the Giant Sequoia, so we were looking forward to our visit to Muir Woods National Monument.

During peak season it is a must to arrive by 9 am to get a parking space.  We did just that and within an hour the tour buses and cars streamed in.  Our reward for arriving early was no crowds and a lovely, peaceful walk among these giants.  This forest has a mystical, fairy-tale feel, somewhat eerie at times, with tendrils of fog snaking among the trees.  Other times it was so peaceful and quiet (in the Cathedral Grove) that we felt as if we were on hallowed ground – really lovely.

These ancient Coast Redwoods covered many northern California valleys before the 1800’s, then logging took its toll.  In 1905 U.S. Congressman William Kent and wife Elizabeth Thacher Kent purchased land here to protect one of the last stands of these giants.  They donated 295 acres to the federal government to ensure lifetime protection.  In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Muir Woods a National Monument and at Mr. Kent’s request it was named for renown conservationist John Muir.

Muir Woods can’t boast the tallest redwood on record but does have some reaching upwards of 250 feet, which is amazing given its start comes from a seed no bigger than what you would find in a tomato.  Most redwoods in this stand are 500-800 years old, with the oldest in the forest topping out at 1200 years.  Marine layer fog provides needed moisture for these redwoods, even in the dry season.

Another giant who calls this forest home is the banana slug, the second largest species of slug in the world, growing as long as 9.8 inches.  They move at a speedy 6.5 inches per minute.  Just follow the trail of slime and you are certain to spy one of these unusual mollusks.

Once we had finished wandering the trails and seen the hordes arriving, we decided to hop onto the Dipsea Trail, right off the parking lot.  This is a 9.5 miler round-trip if you go all the way to Stinson Beach but we cut it short at 6.5 miles, stopping at the bluffs overlooking San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and Point Reyes.  It is considered a moderate hike through a beautiful redwood and fir forest.

A trail marker near the top of the bluff peeked our curiosity.

It marks a point on the trail for the annual Dipsea Race, the oldest trail race in America, first run in 1905.  Open to the first 500 entrants, it is run the second Sunday in June and is described as a “grueling and treacherous” 7.4 mile trek from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach.  Sounds suicidal to me!

If you are in these parts and want to see the tallest of them all, Muir Woods National Monument is the perfect place to spend a few hours.  Who knows, you might even get lucky like we did and catch a glimpse of the slippery banana slug.

*NOTE:  To view the poem Advice from a Tree, by Ilan Shamir, in its entirety, see this website or to listen to Mr. Shamir recite his poem to the beat of his cottonwood drum, go here.

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