Why are the badlands so colorful? – Theodore Roosevelt NP

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Red headed woodpecker

Our first outing at Theodore Roosevelt NP was a long hike at South Unit of the Petrified Forest loop trail in the Theodore Roosevelt wilderness (read here if you missed it).  But that was only a piece of the sprawling 70,400 acres of the breathtaking North Dakota Badlands.  The South Unit was close to our home base at Medora Campground (Steve’s review here), but it was a 60-mile drive to the North Unit, our next area of exploration.

Theodore Roosevelt NP Map

Theodore Roosevelt NP map

It was a good thing we visited the badlands areas on different days and at different times, for it gave us a variety of perspectives on the ever-changing mountain hues as the sun moved across the sky.  As we approached each unit we were faced with colorful multi-layered mountains.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The layers are very prominent at the North Unit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit

Early evening at the South Unit

Winding down the scenic roads we began to understand why the badlands had profoundly affected Theodore Roosevelt.  This landscape changes rapidly due to erosion by wind and rain.  Many multi-colored horizontal stripes in the rocks run for miles.  The corrugated cliffs, steep convoluted gullies and dome-shaped hills unfolded before us, and we were both fascinated and in awe of the beauty – so much to take in!

Theodore Roosevelt NP

At the North Unit…

Theodore Roosevelt NP

…and at the South Unit

Creation of the badlands began over 65 million years ago.  It occurred when the newly-arisen Rockies began depositing sediments that streamed here layer after layer.  Six hundred thousand years ago the northward-flowing Little Missouri River, which was headed for Hudson Bay in Canada, was diverted east by glaciers.  The change in flow eventually formed the rugged terrain that we saw today.

Little Missouri River

The Little Missouri River cuts through the badlands

With the continuing erosion, colored layers of rock are exposed.  They consist of layers of poorly lithified siltstone, claystone, sandstone, and lignite coal that were deposited in a coastal plain environment.  When we looked around, common sedimentary sandstone was mostly what we see.  But a closer look showed odd shapes and strange formations that we learned result from weathered sandstone that forms a protective cap of rock in some places called “hoodoos.”

With erosion wearing down the less resistant material, a jumble of knobs, ridges, and buttes topped with durable red scoria caps remain


Geologic formations have always fascinated me, and from further reading I learned that the badlands are eroded mainly by “slope wash” not directly by streams and rivers.  The soil and rock materials are easily weathered in places where vegetation is thin, forming a loose surface that slips and slides easily downslope during rain showers or when the snow cover melts. 

Theodore Roosevelt NP north Unit

Note the slipping hillside here

Concretions, on the other hand, are spheres of mineral matter once surrounded by rock of a different composition.  The concretions in the picture below were formed when a cementing material formed around a center of organic matter such as a leaf, twig, shell or tooth.  As the softer material weathers away, the spheres emerge as an apparently separate feature in the landscape.  Isn’t that fascinating?


Concretions are commonly, but not always round in shape

Theodore Roosevelt NP

A concretion that looks more like a petrified log

Cannonball concretions

Cannonball concretion

The horizontal layers of multi-colored sandstone, clay and shale are complimented by scattered beds of lignite coal and patches of pastel pink scoria.  The pinkish color is created when the soft lignite burns in fires usually started by lightning, baking the surrounding clay to this bright color.


A closer look at the formations show bluish-gray layers of weathered volcanic ash that formed excellent marker beds in places. We also saw markers formed by brownish-gray layers of sand containing thin, orange iron-rich bands.

North Dakota Badlands

Some strange landscape indeed!


Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The red color of the rock comes from the oxidation of iron released from lignite coal as it burns

The badlands are a hilly landscape, and as we approached them at the South Unit we were looking down at them from above:

Theodore Roosevelt

A pose overlooking part of the South Unit

From one of the North Unit pullouts we saw plateaus capped with a blue-black popcorn-like soil called bentonitic clay which added even more color to the hills.

Bentonic Clay

From the rim of “the breaks,” as the descent into the badlands is called, we viewed strips of sparsely-wooded ridges and bluffs.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Steve is searching for the elusive big horn sheep at the North Unit

The badlands may look austere and desolate, but it is home to a dense population of wildlife.  Bison and Prairie Dogs cause traffic jams, pronghorns can be seen on the hillside and wild horses munch peacefully in the meadows.


That one weighs about as much as our car!


Pronghorns out for a bit of dinner

We didn’t see any Bighorn sheep until we ran across a park ranger who pointed out several on a distant cliff.  He told us that 50% of the sheep here have died of pneumonia recently, and there may not be any left in a year or two.  Very sad.

Theodore Roosevelt NP

Steve talking with ranger John

Bighorn Sheep

It takes a trained eye to spot these resting Bighorn sheep – they really blend into the surrounding rock

And of course I was excited to see several of my feathered friends!

Amidst all of the breathtaking landscape in the North Unit is the reality of the oil boom in the Bakken Oil Fields just a few miles north of the park. We were surprised during our drive to the North Unit to see I-85 so busy with big rig traffic and speeding trucks.

While reading about fracking concerns I stumbled onto an interview of a defender of the North Dakota Badlands.  It turned out to be none other than the ranger we had met at the park!  Click here to learn about the realities of the oil drilling near the park.

I85 traffic

Perhaps the best part of our hikes was the absence of one particular mammal – humans! Between the two areas of the park we preferred the North Unit, as it’s in a relatively isolated region and rarely crowded.  While there we felt like we were experiencing the gorgeous loneliness of the badlands much as Roosevelt did more than a hundred years ago.

Sunset over the North Dakota Badlands


Next up:  Then there’s the SOUTH Dakota badlands!




Getting busy in Bismarck, ND

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Blockhouse at Ft Abraham Lincoln

It was a bit of a letdown when we arrived at our super-tight and dusty campground near Bismarck, after seeing all of the fantastic open farmland during the drive to get there.  It seems many of the RV parks in this part of the country are heavily used by seasonal workers, and are definitely not “destination” parks.  But rather than complain about the place (which Steve did here), we got busy exploring the sights and attractions around Bismarck.


Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

This state park has three big historical stories to tell.  First, the Mandan Nation, an agricultural Indian tribe, lived here from 1575 to 1781.  Their “On-a-Slant Village” is described as a planned community set above the floodplain on the west bank of the Missouri River.  It was named because of its slope toward the river, and at least 86 round earthen lodges were discovered here in the late 1800’s.

When Lewis and Clark arrived in 1804, the village had been abandoned due to multiple smallpox epidemics and attacks by other Indian tribes.  The existing reconstructed earthen lodges provided a realistic backdrop on which to learn about the Mandan lifestyle and culture.

on a Slant Village

Reconstructed On-a -Slant Village

Next, in 1872, an infantry post was built atop a hill overlooking the Mandan village. Designated as Fort McKeen, it was established on the Missouri River bluff to protect surveyors and work crews from indian attacks.  Blockhouses and cornerstones of foundations mark the locations of buildings on the fort.


A blockhouse with a view!


These slots all around the blockhouse provided lookout spots and places from which to shoot at the enemy

Blockhouse at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

View of Missouri River from a slot in the blockhouse

A year later a cavalry post was built on the flats below, and the fort was renamed Fort Abraham Lincoln.  Its most famous resident was Lt. Col. George Custer.  By 188o the fort’s importance declined and it was abandoned and dismantled.  We missed the tour of the Custer House during our visit, but were able to walk around it to admire the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in rebuilding it.

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

Reconstructed buildings at cavalry square with Custer house in the center

The third story describes how the (CCC) came in during the 1930’s to begin restoration of this important historical site.  They reconstructed a portion of the earthen lodges at their original locations, and rebuilt several buildings making up the Cavalry Square, including the Custer home.  At the heart of the state park is also the beautiful museum which the CCC built as well.

Scattered Corn

Scattered Corn helped the CCC design and reconstruct the earthen lodges

CCC at Fort Lincoln State Park

Thumbs up for the CCC boys, known locally as Badlanders.

North Dakota State Capitol

This is our third capitol building visit, and we were excited to learn how the North Dakotans built theirs.  The capitol is also known as the “Skyscraper on the Prairie,” for it stands proudly in the heart of Bismarck with no other buildings even coming close to its 18 floors.


Our tour guide talked about the colorful history of the building.  The first one built in 1883 burned down due to oily rags in a janitor’s closet.  A $2 million limit was set for reconstruction of the building.  The tight budget caused a disruption when the laborers went on strike, demanding a pay raise from 30 cents to 50 cents an hour.  Martial law was then declared and National Guards were posted to maintain order.  The building was finally completed in 1934 and occupied in 1935.

Memorial Hall, North Dakota

Memorial Hall – 40 ft. high, the columns and large window frames are bronze.  The light fixtures are 12 ft. long and shaped like wheat, each containing 109 bulbs

Legislative Hall, North Dakota State Capitol

Legislative Hall where state politicians take a break from their sessions

Elevator Door, State Capitol North Dakota

Bronze elevator door with symbols depicting history and industry

The guide also told us the state’s claim to fame is being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, for on Feb 17, 2007, 8,962 North Dakotans became snow angels outside the capitol building.

guinness Book of World Records

8,962 North Dakota snow angels on the capitol mall

But on this summer day we saw only green on the grounds, as viewed from the 18th floor observation deck.  This floor has both modern and historical displays of the capitol and its history, and on this very clear day we had a 35-mile view of Bismarck and the surrounding area in all directions.


State Museum at North Dakota Heritage Center

We were wowed when we entered the state museum – first of all because it’s free! – and secondly because it was sort of a “mini-Smithsonian” museum for the state.  It tells the stories of North Dakota from its earliest geologic formation to more current times.  It was recently reopened after a year of renovation which cost $52 million, and it’s the only museum of its kind between Minneapolis and Seattle.

We spent several hours viewing three galleries – the Adaptation Gallery tells the fascinating story of the geology and life in North Dakota beginning 600 millions years ago; The Innovation Gallery is devoted to the earliest people of North Dakota; finally, the Inspiration Gallery is about North Dakota’s past, and its ongoing story of the state and its people.

ND Heritage Center

The glass atrium is designed similar to an earthen lodge, constructed with 20 poles.  Outside are large round stones called cannonball concretions, stone formations which can be found in the badlands

One display contained the mummified remains of a duck-billed hadrosaur nicknamed “Dakota,” one of the rarest collections of dinosaur fossils ever found.  It was located in Marmarth, North Dakota in 1999.  I was fascinated by the overviews explaining how this dinosaur was found, and the process of getting it out of the Badlands and to the museum.

Dakota Dinosaur

Fossilized remains of a duck-billed hadrosaur


These examples of Teredo-bored petrified wood are unique to North Dakota

This museum is definitely worth checking out if you happen to be passing through the Bismarck area.

Lastly, we were happy to find some nice walking/biking trails that ran along the Missouri River in Bismarck.  Like several of the cities in this part of the country we have visited recently, Bismarck has dedicated a lot of land to open space for public use, including miles of trails.  Way to go!



Next up:  Exploring the badlands of NORTH Dakota


The Backroads and Byways of North Dakota

Comments 14 Standard

wpid39857-2015-08-19-SD-1670594.jpgPrior to our entry into North Dakota for the first time, I used to think of it as a faraway place up north, a state blanketed in snow, cold and desolate.  Thanks to the movie Fargo, that’s what I’ve always pictured North Dakota to be.  But with the recent oil boom and the advent of fracking, I also imagined the entire state with oil wells scattered all over the place – just like what I saw in Pecos, Texas.

Highway 14, North Dakota

Heading toward Bismarck on highway 14

But as we drove along I was pleasantly surprised by what we saw.  The landscape was dominated by agriculture – wheat, alfalfa, oats, canola, flax, and corn – providing a scenery unique to this state (in my humble opinion).  Of course, we saw similar landscape in Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska, with miles and miles of corn fields.  But North Dakota displayed unique, vibrant and diverse farmlands that were quite colorful.  And as the old saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Devils Lake, North Dakota

“Prairie potholes” filled with beautiful clear water along highway 19

Summer comes alive in North Dakota and I tried to capture it, doing some “drive-by shooting” as Betsy cruised along.  These photos were taken as we traversed highways 2, 19, 14, 85 and I-94 at different times of the day.  For those who have driven here, bear with my exuberance as it doesn’t take much to get me happy and excited!

Wheat Harvesting in North Dakota

These folks are harvesting either wheat or durum wheat

For a little fun I included some North Dakota facts gathered from the Visitor Center:

  • Did you know that the parking meter was invented in North Dakota?
Highway 85 S

Highway 85 displays layers of crop colors

  • North Dakota has 63 wildlife refuges – more than any other state – and all are managed for waterfowl protection.  Farms and ranches provide food and habitat for 75% of the state’s wildlife.
Sea gulls

Seagulls along Devil’s Lake on Highway 2

  • North Dakota has the highest number of millionaires per capita of any state, and there’s not a yuppie to be found here.
Highway 85 S

A millionaire’s junkyard along Highway 85

  • North Dakota has more golf courses per capita than any other state.  Take note, my golfing friends!
I94 S highway

Cruising down I-94 – there’s a golf course out there somewhere!

  • By 2000, 99.5% of North Dakota’s original grassland had been turned into farms and ranches.  This state leads the nation in the production of many crops, including wheat, durum wheat, sunflowers, barley, dry edible beans, canola and flaxseed to name a few.
Highway 2 W

Rolling hills along highway 14

  • In 2012, North Dakota was the fastest-growing state in the U.S.  It’s growth was largely due to an oil boom in the Bakken fields in the western part of the state.  After Texas, North Dakota has become the highest petroleum-producing state.  In just five years it has gone from a quiet agricultural state to a rapidly industrialized energy powerhouse.
Oil Wells along Highway

Oil wells amidst wheat fields on highway 85

  • Despite its oil boom, agriculture and farming are still North Dakota’s top industries. An average farm here is 1,300 acres, and approximately 30,000 families own farms in the state.
Black Butte, ND

Black Butte is a 3,465 ft. mountain peak seen from the Enchanted Highway

  • North Dakota is the least-visited state in America, and we were very glad to be here.

Highway 14S North Dakota

Highway 14 E North Dakota

  • North Dakota farmland would cover over 12 million city blocks.  Farmers here produce enough wheat each year to make 12.6 billion loaves of bread.

Wheat Farm along Enchanted Highway, ND

  • North Dakota leads the nation in sunflower production, raising about half of the nation’s total.

Sunflower Fields, North Dakota

Sunflowers in North Dakota

Sea of sunflowers

And then there’s the Enchanted Highway –

One of the facts I mentioned above was that North Dakota is the least-visited state.  Gary Greff, a retired school teacher and metal sculptor from the town of Regent, created and built several metal sculptures along the Regency-Gladstone Road.  He did it in the hopes of putting his hometown prominently on the map, and to coax travelers from nearby I-94 onto the quiet highway.  He began his work in 1990, and so far seven sculptures have been completed.

Greff is credited with naming this 32-mile stretch of road the Enchanted Highway.  All of the sculptures face north, toward the oncoming traffic from the interstate.

Deer Crossing, Enchanted Highway

“Deer Crossing” was constructed out of used oil well tanks and erected in 2002

Giant Grasshoppers

“Grasshoppers in the Field”

Fisherman's Dream- Enchanted Highway North Dakota

“Fisherman’s Dream” includes 6 large fish of different sizes, including a 60 ft. leaping trout going after a giant dragonfly.

Pheasants on the Prairie, Enchanted Highway North Dakota

“Pheasants on the Prairie” is a giant rooster and hen with their three chicks

Geese in Flight, Enchanted Highway

“Geese in Flight” has been listed as the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records.  It can be seen along I-94

Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again, Enchanted Highway

“Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again” is a 51-ft. tall wire sculpture made out of steel pipes

I didn’t make it to the “Tin Family” sculpture at the 32-mile mark, for I was getting hungry and wanted to catch up with Steve, who went on with Betsy to our next RV park.

If you find yourself driving along I-94 in western North Dakota one day, steer your car onto exit 72 and get enchanted by these giant sculptures.  And while you’re at it, be sure to drop some money in the donation boxes, as Gary is doing this fine work in his spare time and at no charge.

And there you have it, a little chunk of summer in North Dakota!


Next up:  Getting busy in Bismarck, ND