A Few Million Years is all it took to change the topography

Bison latifrons Harlan, 1825 – fossil buffalo skeleton from the Pleistocene of North America (public display, Cincinnati Museum of Natural History & Science, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.)

They say millions of years and a diverted river make the Badlands topography different from south to north. You can see the difference in the topography or the terrain from south to north.

Geologists say that’s why the fossils are different from south to north. The large dinosaurs were not around when the northern Badlands were shaped.  Dinosaurs such as at the Dickinson Museum Center  are from the south.

It’s also why the hills are softer, more eroded in the south and more jagged in the north. 

In fact, they say the southern most Badlands in North Dakota vary only about 80 feet from prairie top to valley bottom.  But where the Little Missouri River empties into the Missouri River at Mandaree, the depth is 650 feet.

A glacier, they say, reshaped the flow of the Little Missouri River.  It left an earthen dam preventing the river from flowing straight north to join what would have been the Yellowstone River around Alamo, and instead made it veer sharply east.

The difference in topography is evident  when you compare the differences at any two locations such as these 5

It is easy to compare the differences in the three units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

North Unit Topography

Following Game Trails Over Bentonite on Upper Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Following Game Trails Over Bentonite on Upper Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

One of the reasons we like the north unit is the extreme depths of the cuts, canyons and valleys.

The trek from prairie top to valley floor is challenging. Sometimes wildlife switchbacks show the way.  Other times, getting from top to bottom means crossing the popcorn layers of bentonite clay when it’s dry — VERY slippery when wet. 

The north facing hills are easier to travel in the north unit, but the south facing hills can be impassible. 

Layers of mud and slime eroded in a vertical pattern, and left little room for squeezing by on the south side of the rugged northern Badlands.

That’s at those times when we want to challenge ourselves and get a good workout, we head north.


South Unit Topography

The South Unit is the larger of the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The short trail to Buck Hill is an example of the visual reward even a short hike on a marked trail can yield.
The South Unit is the larger of the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

At the south unit, the depth from the prairie top to the valley floor is about 250 feet deep. The topography of the south unit is much older and more smoothly eroded than the north unit.

That’s not to say the south unit is an easy stroll.  It includes some challenging terrain — like the wildlife trails off of Scoria Point. 

A challenge for anyone to hike.  Heart-pounding.

topography south unit

Near Scoria point, this red rugged burned clay hill (scoria) shows off its colors and ruggedness and creates challenging hikes across the terrain.

A moderately challenging trail in the south unit is to the highest point — Peck Hill. Here’s what it took for us to go beyond the East Entrance to conquer Peck Hill.  

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Elkhorn Topography

sky clouds elkhorn ranch

Light wispy clouds barely block the sunlight as it turns the hillside in to a color that matches the fall leaves near Elkhorn Ranch.

Then there’s the easy terrain at the middle unit, the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. 

This is ranch country, grazing abounds here along the river floodplain, and on the grasslands that run up to the breaks down to the river. The main trail at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is a mowed grassy path, marked with sign boards leading to the remains of Theodore Roosevelt’s home ranch.



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Frequently Asked Questions

Where are the North Dakota Badlands?

About 20 miles east of the Montana State line, from the South Dakota border, north about 15 miles following the Little Missouri River.

Can I drive through the Badlands?

Yes.  The area is home to many multi-generational ranch families.  So, gravel roads curve through the hills. WE recommend West River road to the south and east river road to the north or south of Interstate 94. In addition, Highways 16, 22 and 85 run along the edges of the Badlands.

How dangerous is it in the Badlands?

The biggest danger is getting stuck in the winter, sliding off the road in a rainy summer, or getting lost on a trail.  Cell phone service is practically non-existant.  Emergency service can take 30 to 60 minutes to reach an injured person.