Badlands and Grasslands

Sept. 9-11, 2012

We’re off to North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We got a late start after touring the dam in Fort Peck, so it turned into a long day. There wasn’t much new to see along the drive, just miles and miles of farmland. We got in too late to go to the visitor center, so we just headed to the campground, self-registered and had a relaxing evening.

We planned two full days in the park. The high temperatures were forecast around 90 degrees for the first day and around 70 degrees for the second day. Thinking that its probably not going to be fun hiking the “badlands” in 90 degree weather, we decided to do the easy stuff first.

We headed over to the visitor center, watched the park movie and discussed hiking options with the ranger for tomorrow. We headed back to the trailer for lunch before setting out on the park loop road.

The park is not that big, and there is a loop road from which you can see a large part of it, with options for smaller hikes, overlooks, and wildlife viewing.

We got off to a little bit of a slow start due to a small traffic jam.

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After patiently waiting for the bison to git along, we stopped to take a small hike to a high vista point.

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This is another vista point where I snapped this meta-photo.

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While the bison are impossible to miss, these guys are a little harder to find. Two wild horses off in the distance.

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The classic bison shot.

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And Prairie dogs. Lots and lots of prairie dogs. Prairie dogs as far as far as the eye can see. They are fun to watch, but hard to get good pictures of. I’m not sure what this guy was doing, but it looked like he was shadow boxing, swatting his paws wildly in front of his face.

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Here’s something you don’t see every day, a helicopter landing on a truck. The copters were spraying herbicides to control some invasive plants, and this is how they were reloading the chemicals.

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The weatherman kept his word and the next day we woke up to much cooler weather, so we kept to the plan of hiking the park. We chose the Petrified Forest Loop trail, about a 10 or so mile trek. To access the trailhead we had about a 30 minute drive out of the park and over some gravel roads which passed through private ranchland and a bunch of drilling sites just outside the park boundaries. There’s oil in them thar badlands!

Heading out on the trail, its quickly clear that we made the right choice waiting for the cooler day to hike. It would have been brutal in the hot sun.

The trail started out through a mile or two of badlands before getting to the first petrified wood zone. The petrified wood here seemed more fragile than we’ve seen in other places. There weren’t many large pieces and the ground was almost covered in places with small pieces of it. Here’s a couple of the bigger pieces, both stumps.

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Coming out of the petrified forest area, we walked up a hill and got to the top of a mesa and there was nothing but grass.

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And grass, and grass, and grass, and grass…

After a few miles we took a break to eat lunch. Normally, we would look for a nice overlook, or somewhere comfortable to sit and enjoy our sandwiches. We gave up after 20 minutes and just sat down in the grass.

When we continued our hike after lunch, we ran into another bison traffic jam.

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We had to take a wide detour to avoid walking through the herd. We were back on the trail in about a half mile. At this point the trail turned back sharply and into the wind. So now we had a nice 30mph headwind for our next 2 miles or so of grassland. That was fun.

The trail on the grassland was marked by wooden posts every quarter mile or so. And near almost every post could be found a bison wallow. This is a dirt pit where the bison like to roll around on their backs. Bison also like to rub against trees. Our theory was that since there weren’t many trees, the bison were using the posts for rubbing. And what feels good after rubbing, we’re guessing wallowing!

Here’s an example of the post and wallow.

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After fighting the wind for what seemed like hours, we finally got to the point where the grasslands turn back into the badlands.

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After another mile or two through another petrified forest area we were back at the truck and heading back to camp.

The good thing about our campground is that if you don’t feel like heading out into the park to see animals, the animals will come to you!

Turkeys in our campsite.

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An entire herd of bison passed through the campground as well.

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