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!




The Badlands of North Dakota – TRNP

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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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - South unit

The road to the Petrified Forest trail head

“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!

Feral horses, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Feral horses in the South Unit of the park

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.

Deer at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Welcome Steve and MonaLiza – now leave us alone!

Cattle at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

“Close that gate when you’re done with your hike, ” said one of the cows

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.

Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness

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.


Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness

Can you spot Steve way up there?

Little Missouri River

Little Missouri River carving through the badlands


Theodore Roosevelt wilderness

How cool is that circular pattern?

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.

Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest

Petrified stumps eroding out of the hillside

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.

A tree stump petrified with chunks of quartz

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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

My imagined guardian of The 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?