Rain and melting snow, wind, frost, and other forces of erosion have carved our badlands into intricate shapes. Since the Little Missouri River began to form the badlands, it has removed an enormous amount of sediment from the area. In the southern part of the badlands, near the river’s headwaters and close to Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming and adjacent Montana, the river has cut down about 80 feet below the level at which it had been flowing before it was diverted by a glacier farther north. Near Medora, the valley floor is 250 feet lower than the pre-diversion level. Still farther downstream, in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and near the confluence of the Missouri and Little Missouri rivers, and nearer to where the glacier diverted it, the east-trending portion of the Little Missouri River flows at a level that is 650 feet deeper than when it was diverted.
The average rates of erosion in the badlands, assuming they started to form about 640,000 years ago, can be calculated as follows:
Headwaters area in Wyoming: 0.15-inch/100 years;
Medora area: 0.5-inch/100 years;
Confluence area near Mandaree – Missouri and Little Missouri rivers: 1.25 inch/100 years.
These rates may seem tiny but, over time, erosion has removed a huge amount of sediment. Approximately 40 cubic miles of sediment have been eroded and carried away by the Little Missouri River from the area that is now the badlands. Most of that sediment now lies beneath the water of the Gulf of Mexico.
The rates of erosion I’ve noted are long-term averages, but erosion goes on at highly irregular rates. Locally, considering only the past few hundred years, the badlands have undergone four separate periods of erosion and three periods of deposition. Since about 1936, new gullies have been cut to their present depths. It may seem a paradox that, although running water is the main agent of erosion, badlands formation tends to be most intense when water is in short supply. Why? Because erosion tends to be more vigorous during times of drought when the vegetative cover is too sparse to protect the soil from the occasional rain storm or spring snow melt. When precipitation is sufficient for the growth of heavy vegetation, the soil is better protected from severe erosion.
Streams and rivers carry sediment away from the area of the badlands, but most of the actual “on-the-spot” erosion is a result of slopewash. In places where vegetation is sparse, the soil and rock materials are easily weathered, forming loose surfaces that slide downslope easily, slumping and sliding during showers or when the snow cover melts.
The Badlands Landscape
The shapes, sizes, and configurations of the hills, buttes, valleys, and other landforms in the badlands are not entirely happenstance. Differences in hardness of the materials result in differences in resistance to erosion. Nodules and concretions help to shape a landscape ranging from beautiful, to desolate – even grotesque. Hard beds of sandstone or clinker cap many of the small buttes. Variations in permeability (permeability is a measure of the ease with which water can move through porous rock) have similar effects; rain and melted snow soak into the more open and permeable sands, resulting in only minimal erosion. When water flows over the surface of tighter, less permeable sediment, such as clay, it abrades and erodes the material, carrying some of it away. The presence or absence and the character of the vegetation also play important roles in governing the rate of erosion. Grass usually helps to control erosion more effectively than does forest vegetation.
The irregular placement of hard nodules and concretions may result in the development of rock-capped pillars, known as “hoodoos,” mushroom-like shapes perched on stalks of clay. In places, slopes are covered by nodules of siderite (iron carbonate). As they weather out of the surrounding materials, becoming concentrated on the surface, the copper-colored nodules form an erosion-resistant armor, which temporarily slows the rate of erosion. Clinker beds are also much more resistant to erosion than are the softer surrounding beds. We commonly see buttes capped by red clinker beds.
Erosional “pipes” sometimes form in gullies and ravines where surface runoff is focused. “Piping” results where runoff can flow downward into small cracks and joints. Pipes are common in places where surface runoff erodes cavities vertically downward through the soft rock. With time, the initial pathways may widen at depth into caves the size of small rooms. The average depth of vertical pipes is about 10 to 15 feet, but some are much deeper. The tops of pipes may be partially concealed making hiking treacherous. I have seen the bones of animals, such as rabbits and deer, at the bottoms of pipes (so far I haven’t seen any human bones). The animals fell into the holes and could not get out.
The geology is only part of the badlands story. The weather and climate, vegetation, animals, birds, insects, sounds and aromas–all of these, along with the human history and the ranching heritage, work together to complete the story of the badlands.
I think the North Dakota badlands are particularly beautiful because of their parklands; wooded areas that occur in draws and on north-facing slopes. Heavy vegetation in the badlands in places like Little Missouri State Park adds to the scenery. Evergreens, such as the Rocky Mountain juniper, ponderosa, and creeping juniper are interspersed with quaking aspen, cottonwood, and poplar. Limber pines are found in the badlands in the southwest corner of the state, near Marmarth.
I’ve hiked and camped in the badlands many times. Evening summer showers accentuate the colors and the clinker beds assume intense shades of red and orange. The fresh, pungent aroma of wet sage and cedar enhance the experience. At night, the stark, intricately eroded pinnacles can seem unreal. In the moonlight or in a night lightning storm, it is easy to imagine the strange shapes as ruins of a magical city, rather than structures of mere sand and clay. Blend in the sound of coyotes conversing and the badlands environment is complete.
If asked what he or she knows about North Dakota’s geology, an average resident will likely mention the badlands first. That’s true too of visitors, many of whom come to the state to see our best-known natural feature, the scenic badlands along the Little Missouri River.
The badlands landscape is a rugged and hilly one, best viewed from above, looking down on the hills, not up at them, as we usually view buttes. From the rim of the “breaks,” the point where we descend into the badlands, an intricately eroded landscape of sparsely wooded ridges, bluffs, buttes, and pinnacles lies before us. Black veins of lignite coal may be seen eroding out of the steep badlands slopes. Reddish bands of clinker add vivid colors to the area. Pieces of petrified wood, as well as fossil stumps and logs, litter the surface. Behind us stretch rolling plains, interrupted only by occasional buttes.
The American Indians, who inhabited the area when the European settlers arrived, referred to badlands as “mako sica,” (“land bad”). Early French explorers translated and added to this, referring to “les mauvais terrers a’ traverser” (“bad land to travel across”).
General Alfred Sully, preparing to cross the badlands in August of 1864, described them as “hell with the fires burned out.” Theodore Roosevelt, who lived for a while in the Little Missouri Badlands in the 1880s, described them as “fantastically beautiful.” I prefer TR’s description.
Age of the Badlands Materials
Badlands topography is found in several places on the plains of the U.S. and Canada. The best-known badlands in the United States are the extensive “Big Badlands,” along the White River in western South Dakota. Near Dickinson we have the “South Heart Badlands” (known also as the “Little Badlands”) where we find layers of sedimentary rock, equivalent (same materials, same geologic age) in part to those in South Dakota’s Big Badlands. The South Heart Badlands are an erosional remnant of what was once a large butte or group of buttes. The South Heart Badlands are carved mainly from strata of Eocene and Oligocene age, ranging between 55 and 25 million years old. The youngest beds belong to the Miocene Arikaree Formation sandstone (22 million years old), which caps some badlands buttes.
North Dakota’s Little Missouri Badlands extend from near the Little Missouri River’s headwaters in Wyoming near Devils Tower to the point where the Little Missouri River joins the Missouri River in western North Dakota. The materials being eroded in these, our most extensive area of badlands, are much older than those in the South Heart Badlands.
The oldest materials in the badlands are in the southwest corner of the state, near Marmarth, where Cretaceous-age Hell Creek Formation beds (about 65 million years old) have been carved into badlands. The dark and somber, gray and purple beds of the Hell Creek Formation contain dinosaur fossils. Small patches of badlands, carved from the Hell Creek formation can also be seen along State Highway 1806 between Huff and Fort Rice in Morton County.
However, the main area of the Little Missouri Badlands is that which has been carved largely from the Paleocene Bullion Creek and Sentinel Butte formations, which were deposited between 58 and 56 million years ago. The beds that have been eroded into these badlands are too young for dinosaur fossils; the dinosaurs were already extinct when they were deposited.
Between 70 and 40 million years ago, a major mountain-building event known as the Laramide Orogeny (orogeny = “mountain forming”) formed the Rocky Mountains in Montana and Wyoming. As the mountains rose, they were attacked by intense erosion, providing sediment to eastward-flowing rivers and streams. The rivers delivered the eroded sediment to western North Dakota’s coastal plain, an area that could be likened to today’s Mississippi River Delta (central North Dakota was an inland sea at that time). Sediment from the eroding mountains accumulated into thick layers of soft, poorly lithified siltstone, claystone, and sandstone: materials that were deposited on river floodplains and in swamps in what is now western North Dakota. These are the sediments we see exposed today in the Little Missouri Badlands.
In addition to the stream-transported sediments, clouds of volcanic ash, blown eastward from the rising Rocky Mountains during the Laramide Orogeny, collected in layers that were later weathered to clays ( “bentonite”). When wet, the clay absorbs water and swells, and it can become slippery when wet so don’t try walking or driving on it. When the beds dry, they assume a surface texture, similar in appearance and consistency to popcorn, with colors ranging from white to bluish-gray or black.
Why the Badlands Formed
Even though the layers of sedimentary rock exposed in North Dakota’s Little Missouri Badlands range from Cretaceous through Eocene in age (65 to 50 million years old), the badlands themselves–the hills and valleys we see today–are not nearly that old. Before a glacier diverted it, the Little Missouri River flowed northward through a broad, smooth valley, joining the early Yellowstone River in northern Williams County. The Little Missouri and Yellowstone rivers came together near Alamo (about 30 miles north of Williston) in a place now buried beneath 400 feet of glacial deposits. From there, the combined Yellowstone-Little Missouri River flowed northeastward into Canada.
The diversion of the Little Missouri River, away from its route to the north, probably happened sometime prior to the deposition of a volcanic ash bed on the glacial sediment blocking the channel (the ash was deposited as a result of a volcanic eruption in the area of Yellowstone Park 640,000 years ago). It is possible, though, that an earlier glacier might have diverted the river – the 640,000-year figure is a minimum date; erosion of the badlands may have begun as early as 3.5 million years ago.
Since it was diverted by glacial ice, the Little Missouri River has flowed over a shorter and steeper route than it did prior to its diversion. That part of the river’s route today, from the point where it makes its sharp turn toward the east in the area of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is east rather than north as it had been before a glacier diverted it. When the river assumed its new, shorter route toward the Gulf of Mexico, it began a vigorous erosion cycle, cutting down more rapidly and deeply and sculpting badlands topography. The badlands then, are an indirect result of glacial activity, even though the only conspicuous direct evidence of glaciation remaining in the area is an occasional glacial erratic on the upland in northern McKenzie County.
As you travel through western North Dakota, notice the multicolored layers and brick- or glass-like masses of baked and fused clay, shale, and sandstone. These baked materials, known as clinker, but often referred to locally as “scoria,” formed in areas where seams of lignite coal burned, baking the nearby sediments to a natural brick. Clinker beds range in thickness from a few feet to more than 50 feet in North Dakota, with even thicker beds in Wyoming and Montana.
The first recorded reference to clinker that I know of was by William Clark, who made the following entry in his journal while wintering at Fort Mandan (March 21, 1805):
Saw an emence quantity of Pumice Stone on the sides & feet of the hills and emence beds of Pumice Stone near the Tops of them, with evident marks of the hills having once been on fire. I Collecte Somne of the different sorts i.e. Stone Pumice & a hard earth, and put them into a funace, the hard earth melted and glazed the others two and the hard Clay became a pumice Stone glazed.
When Lewis and Clark arrived at Beulah Bay, about 20 miles west of present-day Riverdale, on April 10, 1805, Lewis noticed a seam of lignite burning along the face of an outcrop. He commented:
“the bluff is now on fire and throws out considerable quantities of smoke which has a strong sulphurious smell.”
On April 16, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote the following:
I believe it to be the strata of coal seen in those hills which causes the fire and birnt appearances frequently met with in this quarter. where those birnt appearances are to be seen in the face of the river bluffs, the coal is seldom seen, and when you meet with it in the neaghbourhood of the stratas of birnt earth, the coal appears to be presisely at the same hight, and is nearly of the same thickness, togeter with the sand and a sulphurious substance which usually accompanys it.
Following Lewis and Clark, numerous explorers mentioned seeing clinker as they traveled through the region. They included Larocque (1805), Maximilian (1833), Nicollet and Fremont (1839), and Audubon (1843). Some of these explorers believed the clinker beds had a volcanic origin, but Lewis and Clark were correct in their appraisal that clinker formed as clay and sand were heated by the underlying lignite when it caught fire due to natural causes, such as lightning or prairie fires.
Several early explorers reported seeing coal fires in the northern Great Plains. Over the years, range fires have ignited lignite beds many times. At Buck Hill, in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a lignite seam burned from 1951 until 1977. During early October, 1976, prairie fires burned over large areas in the southwestern part of the state, igniting underground lignite seams in at least 30 locations over a 7,000-acre area near Amidon. Most of the fires were extinguished before the following spring, but some of them burned for several months. Again, in July, 1988, several lignite seams were ignited by widespread fires in the badlands. Juniper tree roots burning downward from the surface, into the coal, ignited some of the fires.
Burning lignite is limited to depths where adequate air circulates from the surface. The level of the water table may control this depth (burning can’t take place in water-saturated materials). While veins of coal are burning, fumes from the smoldering coal can alter the growth habits of nearby vegetation, causing it to grow in unusual shapes. After the fires go out, the vegetation reverts to its normal shape, common elsewhere in the badlands. Near Amidon, a stand of junipers grew as columnar-shaped trees for many years while a nearby lignite seam burned, producing ethylene gas, which altered the growth habit of the trees. Since the fire went out, the trees have resumed their normal, more bush-like shapes.
Heat from burning lignite beds hardens, melts, or sinters the overlying and surrounding rocks into brick or glass. Sintering is a process that fuses material into a hard mass, without melting it, much like bricks are baked in a kiln. When lignite burns, it may be transformed to an ash bed that takes up only a fraction of the space the lignite did before it burned. Thin layers of white ash, mostly potash, lime, and other inorganic, non-combustible minerals, can sometimes be found at the base of clinker beds.
The baking process oxidizes iron-rich minerals, mainly to red shades, but black, gray, purple, yellow, and other hues are common. The hue and intensity of the colors depends upon the mineral composition, the grain size of the material that was baked, and how hot a temperature was reached during the baking process. The brick-red color, which is most common, is due primarily to the presence of the mineral hematite (iron oxide: the same as common rust). Following a rain shower, wet clinker beds are much brighter in color.
By the time the materials overlying a burning lignite bed cool and collapse, they are hard, and usually partially fused by baking. As they slump, falling into the burned-out space, the baked, melted, and sintered materials may hold together, resulting in a mass that can be as much as 75 percent air space. After the clinker cools, the empty spaces provide convenient living places for small animals, such as rattlesnakes.
Several prominent clinker zones are found throughout the Little Missouri Badlands. The clinker forms a cap on many hills and ridges over extensive areas. Clinker resists erosion because it is harder than unbaked rocks and also because heating and subsidence during the baking process produce fractures that allow water to infiltrate, minimizing surface runoff. Erosion often leaves clinker as a cap on red-topped knobs, ridges, and buttes standing above the more subdued nearby topography developed on less-resistant, unbaked materials. Some widespread areas of clinker are particularly scenic; good examples can be seen along the Red Hills Road south of Sentinel Butte, along the Bennie Pier road in McKenzie County, and on parts of the Scenic Loop Drive in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.