The Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit is more rugged than the expansive South Unit. Sixty-five miles of private land separate the two. There is one 14-mile out-and-back road in the North Unit that snakes up to acrophobic overlooks along the river gorge. In light of the gusting, biting wind on this day, I didn’t do much hiking here.
The Little Missouri River encountered the southern edge of an ancient glacier here and made an abrupt turn eastward, scouring as it went, to follow the path of least resistance. At the River Bend Overlook, I have to lean into the wind to stay upright to get to the protection of the Civilian Conservation Corps stone hut. The views seem to go on forever. I’m sure I can see Montana from here.
The layers exposed in the sedimentary rock continually captivate me. Reds and browns. Apricot and gold. Gray and black. The dark layers are bentonite, a crumbly soft rock made of volcanic ash. It resembles popcorn and turns pasty in the rain. It is supposed to be good for facials, is used to line human-made ponds and in cat litter (you can buy it, don’t harvest anything from our National Parks).
While there is less wildlife (“just” bison and deer primarily), there are some impressive rock formations.
Not far from the entrance kiosk are the cannonball concretions. They are an aptly named collection of approximately five-foot-diameter symmetrical spheres that look like they’ve rolled downhill. In reality, these formed where they lie. Minerals (mostly calcium carbonite) were deposited long ago around a center core (a shell or plant fragment), creating these sandstone spheres. They were exposed by erosion and are what’s left when the softer sedimentary rock washed away, similar to the way hoodooos are revealed.
These perfectly round, smooth cannon balls sit in stark contrast to the rugged, chaotic badlands surrounding them.
Treasures on the River Bank
Trying to escape the wind, I went back down to the river valley for lunch and some rock-hounding. There was no escaping the plains wind on this day, but that didn’t stop me from exploring the gravelly riverside. There are a surprising number of bones – deer and bison. This speaks to a lack of predators here; there is no one to cull the weak and sick.
In the boot-sucking mud, I found some wonderful beaver prints! These are a rare find because they are so quickly washed away in most environments. It’s another gift of the unique geology of this place.
I don’t know that the North Unit is a destination in itself, but it’s definitely worth visiting if you go out to the South Unit or are passing through.
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