Prairies and a Petrified Forest

Goodbye North Unit of Teddy Roosevelt’s Park

I’ve been looking forward to getting out west for a year and three months now, so, in a way, this place has been a dream come true. And by “this place” I mean both the North Unit campground and the park that we’ve driven through and hiked.

As we walked the grasslands, the trails were dotted with remains of cone flowers. I felt very much like I was walking through the Shire. (I realize that’s not a cone flower, below. Still beautiful.)

There were so few tourists in the park when we went each morning that we decided it would be a good opportunity for me to practice driving the truck to and from the hiking trails. No traffic to contend with, right?

Except for this kind of traffic. I know this bison bull looks to be at about eye level, but remember how tall our truck is. I think the bull and the truck were about the same size.

In the evening, Tracy and I would play cards behind the trailer where the sun was least strong, and I’d watch the golden light move across the bright rock hill behind him. Not a soul was in the campground but us.

We left the windows open when we finally went inside for bedtime, but the sky is so big that it seemed like the sun never really set. At 10:30 pm we could see the pale blue sky out the Airstream windows, and at 3:30 am the sky still seemed light. By 4:00, the cows grazing in the nearby grasslands were mooing in rounds.

The South Unit

We left that campground by 8:00 am so we could try to get a spot inside the south unit campground early; everyone knows national park campgrounds fill by noon. And voila! We found a spot. Nothing like our ideal, isolated one with a view, but it’s in the park, so we could make the most of two short days there. We grabbed it. Turns out there’s a boondocking spot we could have camped at, again, right down the highway from the south entrance, with beautiful views and much less crowding, but whatever, we were fine in the park campground!

This south section of the park seems less dramatic: less greenery, but vaster views. Views so vast it’s hard to look at them and wrap your head around the size of the Earth. It’s like someone took the Grand Canyon and stretched it out and flattened it a little bit. I got so I just couldn’t take pictures anymore. My camera doesn’t show distance well, and distance was all we saw.

Plus, the animals were well camouflaged. I glimpsed:

  • A pheasant in a ditch
  • A wild horse standing on top of a butte, enjoying the breeze
  • An antelope crouching in a field
  • Hundreds of Prairie Dogs, looking up and scattering to their dens that spotted the plains like a minefield. They all made an EEP sound on and off across the prairie.

Petrified Forest

More like a petrified stump field, but still, amazingly cool.

We opted out of hiking the ten-mile loop but did hike in two miles and picked up bits and looked into crannies, then hiked back.

These trees were covered by clay over time, then they mineralized into stone. (Sorry for my layman’s geology terms.)

They look like trees, but they feel like rock. It’s strange and wonderful.

North Dakota has been such a surprise to me. I’d been through South Dakota back when I went to school in Montana and drove across the country to Virginia for the holidays, but I assumed North Dakota was a flat wasteland. This is one reason why we hit the road: to be surprised by our country. In positive ways. It’s working!

I just wish we could spend more time here. But we’re eager to get up into elevation in Montana for this next round of the “heat dome.” Goodbye North Dakota!