September 19-21, 2010
Mile 1815 – 2153
Stanton, ND to Watford City, ND
I’ve already noted that the Missouri River, with its trees and bluffs, provided a welcome break from the monotony of the Plains to the east. Along that river I also began to notice landforms which I thought of as “buttes,” though they were not very high, and
were surrounded by the same rolling, grassy hills as the rest of that valley. The loose red and gray soil (a huge change from the deep black that had covered eastern ND’s prairie potholes) were finely eroded, and vegetation only seemed to grow on the flat, stable tops of those formations. They indicated more complicated geological processes at work than simply the
Missouri’s steady erosion.
In fact, the Missouri River marks the approximate boundary of the Pleistocene’s continental ice sheets, with everything to its west and south (in ND, SD, MT, and WY) considered the unglaciated Missouri Plateau. Before the glaciers came along, the Missouri flowed much farther north – the advancing ice diverted it to its present course. Long before that happened, however, the Rocky Mountains were being formed to the west. As streams flowed out from that uplifted land, sediment was carried eastward to what is now the Great Plains. Soon after, the climate got warmer and stimulated growth of dense, swampy vegetation, which is turn created rich layers of peat. Later, the cataclysmic eruptions of volcanoes to the west deposited thick layers of ash over much of this landscape, burying not only the peat, but also the plants and animals that were present at the time. Plants and animals were fossilized, and the peat eventually compressed into lignite coal. However, the soft layers of rock from these various deposits were easily eroded by the streams that remained, and deep valleys were carved through them. When the glaciers began to retreat, their meltwater coursed down the walls of those valleys, and the millions of swiftly-moving rivulets etched their own impressions on the landscape. What remains is readily evident within Theodore Roosevelt National Park, sometimes referred to as North Dakota’s Badlands.
I spent a day in the South Unit of the park, driving the scenic loop road, checking out the fauna (bison and bighorn sheep have been re-introduced in the park, and wild horses, prairie dogs, deer, elk, and antelope persist), and hiking the Petrified Forest Trail.
I then spent another day and a half in the North Unit, where the closer proximity to the edge of the glacier produced a more rugged landscape. The Little Missouri River flows northward through both, before emptying into the Missouri itself, creating a wide and gentle valley. Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with this land long before he became a politician, and briefly tried his hand at cattle ranching on it. Later in life, his experiences here inspired his work to conserve America’s natural landscape. It’s definitely a landscape that would be fun to explore on horseback – unfortunately the town of Medora, and the park’s own horse guiding service, close down after Labor Day. If you go, though, I would definitely try to arrange a trail ride up some of the long valleys or canyon trails. I’m going to let the photos do most of the rest of the talking here: