Have you visited North Dakota’s sequoia forest? If not, maybe that’s because you’re too young. So, now’s the time to take the Petrified Forest Trail.
I wanna tell ya a story about my latest challenge on the Petrified Forest Trail — including a snorting cedar bush.
There was a time when I was young and full of rambunctious energy and I didn’t find much reason to spend a day hiking Petrified forest loop. I wanted something challenging, heart racing, and more difficult than the Petrified Forest Loop.
On those occasions when I visited, back in those days in the 90s, it was fairly undeveloped and few if any other people visited the trail. Fast Forward 20 years — It’s one of my favorite areas to visit now – a mix of grasslands and badlands.
Its popularity grows, perhaps because of the connection to the Maah Daah Hey trail.
Back in the early days, I never ever saw anyone else there. Now, it’s so popular, there can be as many as a dozen vehicles in the parking lot.
It may seem like that many people make the area feel congested area, but it doesn’t. That’s because the 6-mile loop attracts some people to the north fork and some to the south fork of the unusual area.
Scattered Across the West
North Dakota’s petrified forest is scattered across the western part of the state – but the largest visible collection is west of the Little Missouri River, west of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
It’s in an area called the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness area.
Here’s the technical stuff from John Bluemle, the prolific documentarian of the ND Geological Survey.
About 67 and 55 million years ago, western North Dakota was home to a subtropical to temperate forest with trees up to 12 feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. – John Bluemle
“…stumps from two successive forests have eroded out of the Sentinel Butte Formation. These trees are related to the modern Sequoia; some stumps are up to 12 feet in diameter. The stumps are still upright in the place where they grew 55 million years ago in a coastal floodplain environment. The stumps were preserved as floods inundated the forest floor, burying the bases of trees; the unburied trunks and branches simply decayed away. Often the stumps sprout from a lignite bed or paleosol horizon which itself marks a former forest or swamp floor.
Winter sun turns the landscape blue
A Forced Hike on the Petrified Forest Trail
Earlier this year, on a warm February day, I took off on a self-imposed fitness solo “forced hike” to the southern arm of the loop of the Petrified Forest Trail. I forced myself to maintain a quick pace without stopping, without rest. It was enough to remind me that I need to do the whole loop. It’s not overly challenging with the steep hills and ravines elsewhere in the Badlands. But it covers a lot of ground and unveils large vistas of the Badlands.
And it can bring you up close to the stars of the TR park and wilderness area – Bison. It foolishly happened to me. But that’s later in this story.
Th first quarter mile or so is some of the most authentic grasslands in America. It’s part of the nation’s largest national grasslands, the Little Missouri National Grasslands. – about a million acres.
The walk is easy, a good way to get my legs worked up before a bit more of a minor challenge. At the junction, I decided to take the south fork. Normally, I’d pause here and rest, drink some water, and then move on. But this time, I just reached into the side of my backpack and grabbed a water bottle to drink as I walked.
I found Unusual Roadkill
At a break down into the lower levels I passed a sign of life in the wild. A not-too-old bison carcass lay rotting where it fell. Coyotes and other carnivores fed off the carcass, but it was still fairly intact.
I found it quite curious. When did it die? How did it die? Who is getting fed by the dead meat? It’s all part of life in the real world.
About this time, I got my first distant glimpse of some of the petrified forest stumps. They were just little white spec on a far hill. Before I got to them, I passed several examples of what Blumle said are stumps related to the modern sequoia. As I meandered through the relics, I wondered what a massive forest here must have looked like – and what kind of carcasses were buried beneath me. Fossils never to be found.
Deceived by Distance
Those little white specs on a far hill popped into view every time I climbed a hill – then they disappeared when the Petrified Forest Trail dropped below the horizon. Each time, the white specs were larger than before.
Finally, I got up close to them and was again amazed at their size. The forest to the north has different sizes, more robust, but these on the south fork are tall. Very tall. Over 6 feet.
Back to my pickup in the dark
The sun was setting, and my forced march needed to continue. So, I didn’t dally, but turned back to retrace my steps. I was getting weary, so I mentally checked off the landmarks along the trail, and that encouraged me to know I was making progress to return.
That quick pace in town of about 3 or 4 miles an hour is impossible out here. I don’t know if I’ve ever hit 2 miles an hour, but this was not that time. About 1.5 miles an hour was all I could do, even at a forced pace.
So, as I walked, I drank the rest of my bottle of water. Gotta keep hydrated for my leg muscles to work.
My Bad! I forgot daylight ends early.
The 45-degree day made me wish for spring, and its longer daylight hours.
This was not that day. The sun sets fast in February, faster than I expected. By the time I got to the last half mile of the trail, my excellent night-vision was taxed and incomplete. In another 10 minutes I was going to have to break out the headlamp I carry in my backpack. But hey, I’m a tough guy. I can do it without artificial light.
The last part of the Petrified Forest Trail dips down into a low area. The dark soil of the bare trail contrasted enough with the winter grass that I could see exactly where to step.
A snorting cedar bush on the Petrified Forest trail
I passed by several little cedar bushes, typical for this kind of grassy protected area.
Then, one of the bushes stood up and snorted at me.
Okay! So, my night vision isn’t that good. I have no idea if there were more than one bison masquerading as a bush, but one is enough.
I picked up my pace, lengthened the distance between me and the standing bison bush.
My pickup was a relief to see on the other side of the gate. It was 4:26 p.m. Mountain Time.
3.994 miles according to my trail app. 1700 calories burned. An elevation gain of 349 feet.
It felt good to sit down. I was craving protein, so I stopped in town, got a tuna salad sandwich and headed home – feelin’ good.
- If you are doing just one fork of the Petrified Forest Trail, give yourself three hours to make it out and back. Allow at least 6 hours to do the entire loop.
- Start earlier than you think you need to start.
- Take plenty of water.
- Take a break, but do not litter (I’m getting fed up with picking up other people’s masks, water bottles and protein bar wrappers).
Road Trip Summer
It looks like it’s going to be a good year for road trips in the Badlands. Take a road trip, get out of your car and get healthy! 10 Healthy Benefits!
We’ve written about several, and the one that is closest to the Petrified Forest area is this one, the Elkhorn Ranch. It is in the neighborhood, a fair distance away, but oh! the beauty!
Click one of the highlighted links to get an idea of a road trip or two for you.
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We’ve been getting good response from people who want to boast about the Badlands — these caps will do the trick. Just click to buy!