I’m one of those people who thinks of South Dakota when I hear about The Badlands. But badlands are not just a South Dakota phenomenon, as North Dakota has them too – and folks here brag about them. When they brag, they often include references to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) in the same sentence.
Long before Teddy became president, he was hunting buffalo in the badlands and falling in love with them. It was the rugged North Dakota Badlands that taught him a healthy respect for nature, while toughening him physically and mentally.
“I would not have been President,” he would later say, “had it not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” And here we were at a national park that covers 110 square miles of breathtaking vistas – including the badlands – that bear his name. The welcoming committee below seemed very happy to see us!
There are four areas to explore at the park – the South Unit, the North Unit, Painted Canyon (a rest stop with a gorgeous view just west of Medora) and the Elkhorn Ranch. We enjoyed only the first three areas, as the Elkhorn Ranch requires a high-clearance vehicle. Near the top of our agenda was taking a long hike to get our leg muscles beefed back up.
We felt ambitious and decided to follow the Petrified Forest Loop Trail at the South Unit. The weather cooperated with clouds to filter the hot sun and a slight breeze to make our 11.2 mile hike a pleasure. The petrified woods lie in two main concentrations along this hike – one to the north and the other to the south – each a short 3-mile roundtrip walk from the parking lot. But we took the full loop which included both areas plus several miles of the badlands wilderness and grasslands.
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
Although my photos obviously cannot capture the spirit of the wilderness, I felt now what Roosevelt must have felt then – we can experience the prairie wind brushing our cheeks, and the silence here is deafening. I always lag behind Steve when we are hiking, but this trail in the wilderness was an especially great one for retrospection and solitude.
Odd shapes and strange formations could be seen everywhere on this trail. Below are isolated concretions, formations commonly weathered out of the surrounding eroding sandstone to form protective caps called “hoodoos.”
We wandered through the remains of an ancient forest. Sequoia, Bald Cypress and other water-loving trees stood here some 60,000 years ago.
When silica-rich water soaked into the tress, organic compounds in the wood were dissolved and replaced by very small crystals of quartz. This is the process of petrification.
It’s hard to imagine how the little creatures that live here can survive the harsh winter months. Steve’s sharp eye spotted this molting lizard.
Near the end of our hike I discovered this red mound. Can you see the left side of an old man’s face? I imagined it to be good old Theodore Roosevelt watching over his beloved badlands.
The North Dakota Badlands is a vast area of colorful layered mountains, and we had only checked out one section – the South Unit. There’s much more to come!
Next up: Why are these badlands so colorful?