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.
Late in the Cretaceous, beginning about 70 million years ago, and continuing through the Paleocene, until about 56 million years ago, western North Dakota’s climate was subtropical. Trees up to 12 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall grew in a setting similar to today’s Dismal Swamp in Virginia, or the Florida Everglades, with meandering rivers, swamps, and vast forested floodplains. Modern evidence for this fossil forest includes widespread seams of lignite coal, fossil tree leaves, pollen, and logs and stumps of petrified wood.
Lignite is a soft coal that underlies much of the western two-thirds of North Dakota. It began as an accumulation of dead plant material in tropical or semitropical basins: swamps, lagoons and marshes. As the basins filled with stagnant water, the plant debris became submerged so that atmospheric oxygen could not reach it. When the plants died and fell into the water, they began to decay, but before all the plant debris could decompose, the bacterial action causing the decay stopped; most of the bacteria “committed suicide” by filling the stagnant swamp water with their own toxins to such an extent that they died. The only bacteria that remained were ones that did not need oxygen for respiration. However, these “anaerobic” (the word means “living without air”) bacteria are less efficient at decomposition. As a result, large amounts of submerged organic materials did not decompose, and thick beds of peat accumulated.
Streams meandering through western North Dakota during Paleocene time changed course frequently and, when they did so, they sometimes deposited sand and silt on top of the partially decomposed vegetation (peat). The layers of peat were buried beneath thick layers of sediment and the weight of the overlying beds gradually compressed the peat to lignite. Layers of swamp vegetation, some of them over 50 feet thick, were eventually transformed into beds of lignite coal only a few feet thick.
Seams of lignite, horizontal black bands, can be seen eroding out of hillsides today. They range from a few feet to as much as forty feet thick in Slope County and even thicker in Wyoming and Montana. If a peat bog happened to be buried by river sediments before the decay process had progressed very far, and trees were still growing in the swamps, some lignite may have formed, but some of the trees were instead changed into petrified wood. Occasionally, a petrified tree stump, rooted in a lignite bed, can be seen.
Petrified wood formed when minerals gradually replaced the buried plant material. The petrification process requires rapid burial of the wood to prevent decay. This sometimes happened when rivers shifted course or overflowed their banks, burying a forest floor under a layer of sand and silt. Other times, forests were partially covered by volcanic ash, blown to the area from volcanoes in the rising Rocky Mountains. After burial, ground water seeped through the ash and wood, coating cell walls and filling the intercellular cavities with minerals.
Usually, the cellular structure of the wood was destroyed; leaving only a rough cast of the original log, but sometimes growth rings, bark, knots, and even the shapes of the wood’s tiny cells are preserved with remarkable fidelity. This more detailed preservation is possible because some molecules, such as silica and other inorganic materials, are much smaller than organic molecules so, rather than “molecule for molecule” replacement, the organic molecules are coated and surrounded with silica. Cavities in petrified wood may be encrusted with quartz crystals.
Petrified wood ranges from solid, well-silicified specimens to splintery, or “coalified” wood that tends to disintegrate when it is exposed to weathering or it may simply fall apart when you pick it up. The degree of petrification can vary, even within a single specimen. Individual stumps or logs may contain both well-silicified parts and other parts that are still coal. Most of North Dakota’s petrified wood is brown or tan on weathered surfaces and dark brown where freshly broken, but colors can range from white to gray, with streaks of black. Traces of minerals add color to the fossilized wood: yellow, brown and red may indicate iron; black and purple hues suggest carbon or manganese mineralization.
Petrified wood occurs as entire logs or stumps, some standing upright where they once grew, or as scattered limbs and fragments, strewn over the land surface. A fallen log was probably cylindrical when it fell down, but the petrified logs we find today often have oval cross sections because, after they were buried, they became compressed and flattened by the weight of overlying sediments. Most of North Dakota’s fossil wood is Paleocene in age, but petrified wood is also found in smaller amounts in the older Hell Creek Formation and in some of the younger bedrock units.
Fossil leaves, commonly found along with petrified wood, help us to identify the species of trees that grew in and near the swamps where petrified wood is found. Many specimens belong to the plant genus Metasequoia, the dawn redwood. Fossils of dawn redwood were first discovered in 1941, and the tree was thought to be extinct, but living specimens were discovered in south-central China in 1945. Today, the dawn redwood is widely used as an ornamental tree in warmer climates.
During the Paleocene, while Metasequoia trees were growing in North Dakota, a variety of other kinds of vegetation were also present. We know them primarily through studies of fossil pollen and the delicate imprints of leaves in mudstone, siltstone, and carbonaceous shale. Along with the leaf fossils, we find remarkably preserved petrified cones of Sequoia dakotensis (giant evergreen trees), the leaves of tree ferns, and various kinds of petrified wood.
So much fossil wood is strewn over the surface in some places that such areas are referred to as “petrified forests.” North Dakota’s best-known petrified forest is in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where large numbers of tree stumps have eroded out of the Sentinel Butte Formation. Some stumps are still upright, in the positions in which they grew 60 million years ago. They were preserved when the forest floor was flooded, burying the bases of the trees. The unburied parts of the trunks and branches decayed and disappeared. Petrified stumps may be anchored in a lignite bed or a buried soil horizon, which may mark a former forest or swamp floor.
Petrified wood is often used in landscaping. Many western North Dakota driveways and flower beds are decorated with fine specimens. An outstanding example of a petrified stump, collected in McKenzie County, may be seen in the Long-X Visitor Center in Watford City. The stump, probably bald cypress, is nine feet in diameter and weighs about eight tons. Perhaps the most elaborate use of petrified wood in an ornamental sense is in the Petrified Wood Park in Lemmon, South Dakota. In this park, completed in 1932, O. S. Quammen constructed hundreds of pillars and intricate structures of petrified wood, much of it from North Dakota.
In 1990, the level of Lake Sakakawea was low, revealing several petrified logs weathering out of the Sentinel Butte Formation along the lake shore in Mercer County. Pieces of an 80-foot-long petrified log, collected from the area, along with two stumps from the Amidon area, are displayed on the North Dakota State Capitol grounds. The log and stumps were located southeast of the State Capitol building, in the Centennial Grove for many years, but they were moved to a location east of the Heritage Center in 2014. Still another large petrified log was uncovered during construction of Interstate Highway 94 west of Dickinson, This 120-foot-long, six-foot diameter log (much larger than the one on the State Capitol grounds) was offered to nearby towns as a tourist attraction, but it was reburied when no one wanted it.
During my 42 years with the Geological Survey (1962 – 2004), I worked on nearly every facet of North Dakota geology: the rocks that produce oil, gas, coal, gravel, ground water and our other mineral resources. My studies of the glacial sediments near Devils Lake helped me to gain detailed insights into North Dakota’s past climate changes. However, I was always most interested in the origin of the hills and valleys I saw every day as I traveled around the state. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand how the land that is North Dakota came to be the way it is. My wife, Mary, and our three children as they came along, lived with me in about 25 North Dakota towns over the years. Our oldest son, Bill, was born in Park River while I was mapping Walsh County, and our daughter, Irene, arrived in Lisbon while I was mapping Ransom County. Paul, the youngest, was born in Grand Forks on the first day of January, when it was too cold to map anywhere. Over the years, we lived, up to six months each, in places like Carrington, Cooperstown, Harvey, Hazen, Mayville, McClusky, Washburn, White Shield, Fort Totten, Fort Yates, Rock Lake, and Turtle Lake. Our summer homes were in towns in about 30 counties, and on four Indian Reservations. We enjoyed every one of them.
Each place was special in some way. North Dakota people are open and friendly, and often interested in geology. When we arrived at a new place, we asked locally if anyone had an apartment for rent and, usually, someone did. In Harvey we rented from the owner of the town bakery—a great choice! In Enderlin, our landlady’s son, a hunter, kept us supplied with pheasants and geese that autumn. In another town, our landlady’s son provided us with wild turkeys (some of them may have been poached—we didn’t ask). In another place, we shared a rental house with some bats. In Fort Yates, the brand-new nursing home was not yet filled and still had room, so that became our home. Our little kids were a hit with the elderly residents. I worked in every part of the state. A “field season” for me usually lasted from sometime in May, beginning when it was dry enough to get around, and ending in November, when the ground was frozen too hard to auger a hole. Just before Thanksgiving, we would move back to our own home in Grand Forks. The day after we got home one year, I raked the yard and put up the storm windows. The next day a blizzard blew, and the snow stayed until spring. Our neighbor, an elderly Norwegian man, commented, in his wonderful accent, “that Bluemle, he always times things right.” Well, I don’t “always time things right,” but I was glad I had that year. For the nearly 25 years that we spent our summers “in the field,” throughout North Dakota, we tended to visualize Grand Forks as a white and snowy “winter wonderland” because we weren’t around much to enjoy it in the summer time. Mary and I claim some important knowledge and understanding of North Dakota, apart from the geology. While mapping, I noted stands of chokecherries, wild plums, buffalo berries and juneberries. That valuable information went on my field maps, right along with the geology, as did the locations of the best places to buy sausage and kuchen.
Most of the photos I will post on this website will illustrate landforms. I hope they will help readers appreciate and understand the geologic processes that shaped our modern landscape. I took most of them during the summers of 2009, 2010, and 2011 while we traveled throughout the state. The notion to travel around the state in the summer as kind of a “post-retirement” project turned out to be a great decision. To provide purpose, I took photos of geologic features. During some of our trips around the state we got a little more “off the beaten path” than I intended. One day, I drove along a road on the Missouri Coteau that became a trail, and eventually a narrow, mostly washed-out path with no place to turn around easily, so I kept going. Finally, we came to a barricade, so I stopped and walked around it to read the hand-printed sign: “Do Not Enter: Road Impassible.” The seven miles I had just driven were impassible! I dug out a couple of the steel fence posts, drove to the “good” side of the barricade, and replaced the posts and sign. Another day, I walked over to a fence line, took a picture, and stepped in a badger hole and broke my foot. Still another time, we stopped to admire a herd of longhorn cattle, standing on the road, surrounding us. I thought one was particularly handsome so I took his picture through the open window on the passenger side of our van. I felt something cold, turned around, and found myself nose to nose with a cow that had gotten her head in through the open window as far as her horns allowed. I presumed she probably wanted her picture taken too, so I snapped her as well.
Many geologists move from country to country around the world; we moved from county to county around the state of North Dakota. Unspoiled prairies and buttes, rivers and lakes, wildflowers and wild fruit are everywhere. Wildlife abounds. Gravel trails lead to broad horizons. Late afternoon summer
showers are followed by spectacular sunsets. The prairie landscapes are multi-dimensional. Their breadths, elevations and depths reflect geologic events and processes I’ll explore on this website. And the geology is always there. Geology opens the door to another world just beneath the familiar scenes of our everyday lives. It takes us outdoors as we explore the intricacies of our Earth’s history. Mary and I have traveled beyond North Dakota–to most of the states and Canadian provinces and about 20 other countries. Much of our travel has been to enjoy geology. We’ve seen a lot of spectacular geology in places like Montana, Alberta, and Sweden. Scotland is my favorite destination for geology and for the history of the science of geology. Our geology, here in North Dakota, may be more subtle than the places I just mentioned, but it is just as interesting. My career has been satisfying, my work interesting and rewarding. Every day on the job was different for me. Whether it was the glorious summer days in the field, mapping geology, or wintry days I spent in my office, piecing together and trying to understand what I had mapped the previous summer, it was always fascinating.