North Dakota and the Badlands 23rd–30th September

3 Oct

Yet another new State – North Dakota approached us along the highway, as usual we exited to the Welcome Centre to pick up our State Map, and any information we can for our visiting.

The lady who greeted us proved very knowledgeable and informative providing us with not only a North Dakota map but a map for Minnesota, these had apparently been in short supply in Minnesota itself and we could not get one. I almost have a a full set of State Maps and was pleased to fill in my gap.

Bismark is the State Capital of North Dakota and she advised a visit to the Heritage Centre at the Capital complex was well worth the journey. We were able to park in the capital visitors car park and take the short walk to the Heritage Centre from there. We spent a couple of hours viewing the exhibits which certainly were informative, beginning with dinosaurs and a large Albertasaurus skeleton found in the State. An extensive display of the history of the Plains Indians, there lifestyle and battles with the ‘white man’ proved very informative as was the history surrounding the settlers and early farming of the area. We began to get information overload but ended our visit by going downstairs to view artefacts from the USS North Dakota which were alongside objects sent to the State from France after the second World War.

This bit of history was new to us and we found it fascinating to read that in response to the aid sent in rail cars on ships to France, its people returned whatever they could as a ‘thank you’ – many States received these gifts but North Dakota has preserved the Caboose they travelled in and a lot of the items. Simple everyday things like children’s toys and books sat alongside more precious items of embroidery and jewellery, treasured items given up to say thank you for the food and essentials which had been received.

It had been our intention to stay at the State Park in Bismark, however due to flooding earlier in the year we found several campgrounds including the State Park were closed. We eventually stayed at a small site adjacent to a motel in Medora which also had suffered from the flooding but was now dry – ish!

Next day we picked up Interstate 94 to travel to the west of North Dakota. Our Destination was to be Theodore Roosevelt National Park and we began our visit with a stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook. I may have mentioned before that moving from one State to another you very often see a visible change in your surroundings just like moving from one country to another. As we got out at the overlook I felt the change in the air, the sky was blue and so very clear, it was warm but fresh, it may sound silly but I felt we had crossed into the west, which of course we had. North Dakota is part of the old ‘Wild West’, the western frontier and cowboy land.


  Here  stretching before us was a landscape which tested those early explorers with its contours  and complexities but somehow a landscape with so much beauty you have to stand and look.  

On to the park and the Cottonwood campground in the south unit. Close by here Theodore Roosevelt had a small cabin to which he came while recovering from personal trauma. He lost both his wife and mother in close succession. He came to love the landscape and the life, buying into a local ranch, he enjoyed time hunting and developing his cowboy skills. As his love of the area grew so did his ideas on conservation. Later as President he was able to  preserve not only many acres of land in the two parts which are now Roosevelt National Park, but, set aside land forming many other of the National Parks we as travellers and the American people can enjoy.

From the campground we drove the 36 mile loop road to get a feel for the surroundings and hopefully get out and walk along some of the trails. The park is home to lots of wildlife and we were thrilled that one of the biggest did not go into hiding when he heard we were around.


His small friends were very inquisitive too but squeaked and squawked at each other when a big bison called haRVey parked up beside them,


The Prairie Dog Towns are quite extensive and the antics of the occupants amused us. They signal to each other with squeaks but at certain points jump in the air as they do it and then disappear down a hole, we were entertained for a while until the sun got just tooo hot and we had to move on.






The soft rocks are protected by harder cap rock but eventually the weather erodes the bentonite layer which becomes very slippery and unstable in wet weather causing aptly named slumps. P1190362




The little Missouri River winds through the soft rocks cutting a path for itself, this year widened by the flooding. We climbed a trail which led to a vantage point to look out over the river.







I was intrigued by the rocks with holes in them where you could see right throughP1190368 but might not have put my hand in this hole had I known, as I did later, that Black Widow spiders like to lurk in them!!!!!!!*****








Another short (but very hot) walk took us to view an area where for 26years a seam of Lignite coal burned after being struck by lightening. The intense heat baked the softer rock forming a stone like a natural brick. This is visible as a dark, brick red outcrop in many parts of the landscape.


In a short space of time we had gone from cold and wet weather to a baking 90 degrees, thankfully with low humidity but still late afternoon became quite difficult for us and we spent the time outside in the shade catching what breeze we could. These campgrounds have no water or electricity so air conditioning was not an option!

We sat  under the rustling cottonwood trees, their leaves changing through lime green to yellow and gold before they fall to make a crunchy carpet under our feet. Our first night at Cottonwood we attended a ranger talk about cowboys, the ranger being the grand daughter of a life long cowboy was able to speak with authority on the subject and had props to assist her. Her Uncle’s leather breaches, her Mother’s cowboy hat, her own cowboy boots and Grandpa’s rope for lassoing cattle!

Afterwards we fell into conversation with Bill and Ellen, a couple from Wisconsin travelling in their pop up camper. We talked about Wisconsin cheese and they very kindly invited us to sample some they had with them and a bottle of wine made by a friend…. all very good and enjoyable company too. As we walked back to haRVey in the dark, the lack of light pollution allowed us to easily see the Milky way and countless other stars above.

We drove north to the northern unit of the National Park. This part of the park had a much quieter feel to it maybe due to the park road being closed about 7 miles in. We were told we would be able to cycle or walk along the road however and there was still plenty to see if we did not venture further than the camp ground area.

We saw more buffalo and prairie dogs as we drove into the park, Robert was very clever(especially as he was driving)  to spot high on a rock two of the very rare long horn sheep.


I was very pleased with this picture as with the naked eye all we could see was a white blob.


It was another hot afternoon but we did manage a short walk firstly to the cannon ball P1190430concretions site not far from the camp ground entrance. These huge round boulders are formed around deposits of mineral, where they had crumbled and broken you could see the change of colour between the core minerals and outer shell.















We then walked a little way along another trail, dodging buffalo droppings as we went, to get a view of the Little Missouri River.




We set off early next morning on our cycles to beat the heat. It was 2 miles to the point where the road was closed, mostly flat road so I managed OK but soon after the barriers the climb began and that is where I started to walk. We soon spotted why the road was not open to motor vehicles.

Not too obvious but the new tarmac has a rise of about a foot from one level of road to the other!





Further along was even worse, the ‘one lane road’ sign amused us,IMG_0290

one lane for cycles maybe….










However, the walk/cycle was worth the effort when we reached a look out point where in the 1930’s the CCC workers had constructed a shelter



The view in both directions was spectacular, with a breeze blowing to cool us too we were happy to spend a while just looking out.


We could have continued further , the road is 14 miles in total, but it was another climb and I called halt. The return journey was great fun, down hill all the way I suppose that’s the bonus for the uphill climb.

Leaving the park next day we appreciated even more the fact that this portion of North Dakota is protected. Our journey along highway 2 was accompanied by many many large trucks with supplies for the ever growing oil production industry in the northern part of the State. All along the highway evidence of exploration and extraction was more than obvious. Added to this are the areas being termed ‘man towns’, mobile home accommodation for the workers consisting of various grades of RV from scruffy old trailers and 5th wheels to some quite neatly laid out rows of new units, never the less a blot on the landscape we felt.

Along our route was Fort Union National Monument, the site of one of the largest trading forts in the northern territories. It now sits white and lonely looking in the landscape.



However behind the stockade the reconstruction holds an interesting museum about the trading between the white man and the plains Indians.












A few miles further on and we stopped once more at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, already two large rivers in their own right they continue there journey as one and eventually join the Mississippi to head for the Gulf of Mexico.

We have been following Highway 2 on our journey west for some time, this is not an interstate but is the major highway running east to west at this latitude, the nearest east west route Interstate being around 80 miles south. We were not surprised to find construction signs on the road, we were not even surprised when we had to halt and wait for a pilot car to escort the traffic through sections of the construction. We were extremely surprised when we were guided through a section of this major highway with no carriageway in either direction however….



This sandy surface stretched for around 2 miles, we would never have contemplated driving on a surface this soft but had no choice.




Our overnight stop was another old trading fort town now better known for its dam. Fort Peck dam is the largest hydraulically  filled earth dam in the world, behind it a lake 134 miles long today provides recreational facilities and hydro electricity is produced by the huge turbines in the power houses on the dam.


We watched a film in the visitor centre which had so many facts and figures I got a little lost, however all was put in context when we took a guided tour led by Dan – the volunteer, around the power house.

The construction of the dam was part of the ‘New Deal’ to provide work during the depression of the 1930s. Just 7 days after the announcement the dam was to be built workers had already gathered in the town of Fort Peck and work commenced. Many small towns sprang up in the area as more and more workers were needed for the construction. With little work to be had anywhere even the small amount of 50 cents an hour for less skilled jobs was readily accepted by many and saved their families from the extreme poverty others were enduring.

The right hand tower in the photo above is the original building, actually triangular in shape and ornately decorated for a utility building. The left hand building added in the 1960’s is far plainer in construction but at least mimics the original.

We were the only people on the tour that afternoon and Dan, our guide was able to better explain to us the method of construction of the dam before taking us on a detailed tour around the generator plant. I never thought I would be so fascinated by a power plant…. the massive wrenches and spanners hung on the wall, the throb of the generators as they turned, powered by the water flowing through them, the vast surge towers (inside the buildings in the photo) all very clean and very hard to realise the same machinery had been working here since its beginning in 1940.

Seven years after the boom when the dam was completed the work for most of the 40,000 people who had flocked to the area had dried up, mostly they moved away in search of work elsewhere, the towns dwindled and today some are non existent. I could not help but draw a comparison with the ‘man towns’ of the oil boom – how long will they last and what will become of the area they occupy in the future?






Someone came to see us at our camp site


One Response to “North Dakota and the Badlands 23rd–30th September”

  1. Susan October 4, 2011 at 8:24 am #

    I can’t believe they expected you to drive down that stretch of road. Must have been nerve-wracking!
    I am jealous of all the states you have colored in. we are hoping to put a big dent in our map next summer.
    great pictures! Glad you are enjoying it up north!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: