The first four days after our day of departure from Minnesota were spent at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Western North Dakota and Makoshika State Park in Eastern Montana. Both areas we visited shared a common theme: maco sika, a Lakota phrase meaning “bad land,” or “bad earth”. These bizarre lands are named such for their hot dry climate and lack of potable water.
What fascinated me most about the badlands was how much prehistoric evidence exists within them. Their history is not hot and dry at all, but lush and subtropical. Millions of years ago, these lands were inhabited by animals now extinct (an ancient reptile called Champsosaurus at Theodore Roosevelt and dinosaurs at Makoshika).
We were first exposed to the North Dakota badlands while driving past the eastern side of Theodore Roosevelt National Park off of 94. Upon stopping in the town of Medora, I immediately noticed badland formations looming in the background of the quaint buildings. I particularly appreciated the wooden playground in town.
After exploring Medora, we headed into the park to overnight backpack the Petrified Forest Loop. Along this route are ancient trees stumps, petrified from being covered in sediment for years, and then eventually exposed by erosion. These massive stumps are from 60 million years ago, when the landscape was more like the Florida everglades. The Petrified Forest Loop includes two separate areas containing these fossils. We visited the south trail first, which was the smaller of the two. We had the place to ourselves.
In between the petrified forests, most of the hike was through prairie. The day was very hot, and hiking for miles in the open prairie was extremely uncomfortable. Stephanie began showing signs of heat exhaustion, causing us to take many breaks and drink a lot of water. Around 2 in the afternoon, we began to see rain clouds in the distance.
When we finally came upon views of the badlands, the rain clouds had moved in even closer. Watching a thunderstorm from the outside was a beautiful sight.
Soon, however, the cracks of thunder that had seemed so far away erupted right on top of us. We took cover at lower ground nearby a grove of trees. The storm passed over us quickly, and turned the hot day into a perfect day. On the trail, we saw a bison in the distance.
We also witnessed a couple of dung beetles rolling a ball of dung. Their teamwork was fascinating.
After turning onto the north trail, we came upon some interesting formations.
Unfortunately, the downpour had caused the downward sloping trail around these formations to become extremely slick. We tried to stay on two feet, but that proved impossible as, defeated, we took to sliding down it. My newly cleaned boots were caked in mud.
At this point, we quickly found a place to pitch our tent for the night.
In the morning, the hike out was quick and included the large North Petrified Forest. The many petrified tree stumps here gave the impression of a tree graveyard. I am amazed at the size of the trees that once grew here.
On the hike out, we were lucky enough to spot not only another bison, but also a lone wild horse! He stood atop a high point and looked over the badlands. As we walked by, he looked at us but didn’t falter; he stood tall and proud.
That night we camped at nearby Buffalo Gap Campground and did a little mountain biking on the Maah Daah Hey trail. Again, the weather was hot and relentless. We only lasted a couple hours biking.
The next day we drove to Makoshika State Park in Glendive, MT. Here, fossils of ten different species of dinosaurs have been found, including Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops. The exposed sediments found here date further back (135-65 million years ago) than those in North Dakota because of the park’s location on an anticline.
We hiked via the Ponderosa trail and the McCarty trail to Twin Sisters and Hungry Joe. Both were absolutely breathtaking. The beautiful yucca plants along the Ponderosa trail seemed foreign to me.
We then explored the natural bridge area, where the strange formations gave me an eerie feeling.
I am humbled by the badlands of North Dakota and Montana because of the indisputable evidence of what came before mankind. Mankind treats the world as if it were made for us: claiming land and nonrenewable resources as our own. Anything that is useful to us belongs to us. Yet humankind makes up just a tiny fraction of earth’s history. It is shocking how much of a dent we have made on the earth in this short time. I like to believe that mother earth is so much stronger than man…that she will prevail after we are gone. I must say that humankind is certainly testing that theory.
Visiting the badlands of western North Dakota and eastern Montana is a great experience that will remind you how young we really are on this great earth.