Into the Woods: Exploring North Dakota’s petrified forest in the ‘graveyard of stumps’

Happy Sunday, Prairie People!

Today I want to introduce you to Jack Dura, one of my favorite North Dakota writers. He has a great appreciation for local history and a knack for getting off the beaten path, so I think he’ll fit in here just fine.

You might have read Jack’s work in High Plains Reader, The Spectrum or North Dakota’s oldest newspaper, the Hillsboro Banner. He’s also done some interesting things for “Dakota Datebook” for Prairie Public radio.

In today’s guest post, Jack takes us to western North Dakota. If you like what you read, don’t forget to follow him on Twitter. He’s @JackFromNoDak.

Here’s Jack!

-Alicia

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The north petrified forest of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit contains hundreds of petrified stumps dating back over 55 million years.

The Weather Channel forecasted a high of 63 degrees for Medora, on Feb. 27. In North Dakota, you can’t ignore that.

Five hours driving across two time zones brought my gal pal Abby and me to the legendary town on the edge of the West. Medora was pretty dead that weekend since its tourist season is almost entirely in summer. After brunch at the only eatery open, Abby and I hit the trail for our main destination: Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s petrified forest loop.

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A chunk of petrified wood rests on a small stand of earth while erosion works around it.

The petrified forest is definitely on the list of out-of-place places in North Dakota. It’s up there with the limber pines near Marmarth and Medicine Hole, that cave in the Killdeer Mountains. You just don’t really expect a petrified forest to exist here in this prairie region.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park calls its petrified forest the third largest in the U.S. Whether or not that’s true, it’s too easy to lose yourself in it among the silicified stumps and broken landscape—as Abby learned when I disappeared over a hill.

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Some of the largest stumps of the petrified forest are up to 14 feet around.

The petrified forest is accessible via seven miles of dirt roads off of Interstate 94. Twisting through the badlands prairie, the road will bring you to a small parking lot. Attention to the park’s signs along the road is a must. A hike of about a mile and a half will take you to the north petrified forest, where the most accessible stumps are.

And here’s where the fun begins.

For almost as far as the eye can see, petrified stumps and pieces of former wood cover the landscape. A “graveyard of stumps” is what Abby called it. Out in the backcountry of an isolated wilderness.

From orange to white to brown, the petrified wood varies in color and shape and size, but are perhaps the most constant things in North Dakota. After all, they’ve been frozen in place in an erosive landscape for over 55 million years.

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Shrapnel-like fragments of petrified wood litter the badlands along the petrified forest loop trail.

Before their rapid burial in ash, silt and other materials, the stumps were 100-foot tall cypress trees. They comprised part of the badlands’ past as a vast, swampy area. Dinosaurs roamed this area, and their remains can still be found today. In fact, one of the best preserved dinosaurs ever found was discovered in the Marmarth area with its soft tissue and skin still intact.

Once in the petrified forest, the trail is easy to lose once but you’ll be off it anyways. This part of the badlands offers so much to explore, from small canyons to juniper hillsides to flat, grassy knolls. The stumps, of course, are a highlight. They’re almost alien.

The day we visited (Feb. 27), the temperature broke 65 degrees. The sky was overcast and winds were strong, but that temperature.

Sixty-five degrees in February in North Dakota. Take advantage.

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Large petrified stumps stud the eroded hillsides of the South Unit badlands.

What do you think of the petrified forest? Where do you go when you want to get a little lost? What’s your favorite spot in Western North Dakota? 

Want to share a story about the Upper Midwest? I’m always looking for guest posts from writers and photographers. Just comment below this post and I’ll get in touch!

Don’t forget to enter to win Fargo Film Festival passes here. The contest ends Monday at noon and the winner will be announced on social media.

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