|Feral horses, remnants of free ranging ranch stock, roam about in TRNP.|
After Skyline the park just kept getting better and better.
Scoria Point is actually not scoria. That's one thing we learned during our stay. It is, in geologic terms, clinker--though locally it is called scoria because they look an awful lot a like. Scoria is an igneous rock, formed by volcanoes. Clinker is a metamorphic rock formed when a vein of subterranean coal starts on fire. It burns underground and, essentially, bakes the layer of bentonite clay and other sediments above it into pottery. Beautiful red stone pottery. How cool is that?!
This loop is just a shade over half a mile and was a rather nice introduction to the park ecosystem and landscape. Using the full-color informational booklet provided at the trailhead we followed the trail imaging ourselves traversing the badlands by wagon train or learning about how native plants have evolved to survive in such an arid place. It was notable how the plants changed depending on whether we were looking at a north or south facing hill. We'd not seen any flowers along the first section of the trail, but as soon as we looped around to the opposite side we hit a carpet dotted with pasqueflowers. We learned there is a kind of juniper we'd never heard of--Creeping Juniper-and it does just that, creeping and sprawling out along the ground, remaining just inches high. It was cool. Matt and I are both pretty big fans of this sort of self-guided nature education.
|It rained off and on all weekend.|
|Pasqueflowers are some of my favorites--and some of the earliest to arrive each year.|
|Matt pointed out how deep the root of the various prairie grasses were, especially in contrast to the sod we've been ripping up recently in our garden expansion. It was quite interesting.|
This was a really neat and easy little hike through a rather enormous prairie dog town to a cool old, stone building that once served as the entrance to TRNP. With the construction of I-94 the entrance was moved and a portion of the old highway abandoned. It was beautiful out, albeit a bit nippy when the wind was blowing, as it did intermittently all day. We had a pit stop at the old entrance station, basking in the beauty and conducting a thorough examination of the building's exterior. Those early park buildings are so charming and fit so well with the natural landscape. Then we hiked back out the way we came. The whole thing is less than a mile round-trip. While the views were better at Buck Hill and Boicourt this Old Entrance Station hike was my favorite stroll of the weekend.
|They really do bark like little dogs. Run like them, too.|
|Sometimes I am so full of good cheer I have to do a headstand.|
|Matt pretended to be a park visitor of yore driving a Model-T through the old park entrance gate. He's silly and fun.|
|I thought the bits of rock pressed into the mud looked like a mosaic work of art.|
This loop--also under a mile round-trip--was scenic enough, but the real draw is the bizarre geologic and topographic changes that have taken place there. In 1951 a lightning strike ignited a 12 foot thick underground layer of lignite coal. It then burned and smoldered away down there for the next 26 years. Isn't that crazy?! Apparently some park visitors during that time roasted marshmallows over the steaming ground. This is, of course, the process that results in the previously described clinker rock. In the aftermath of the fire the ground in the area collapsed in on itself because the 12 feet of coal was no longer down there to support the surface layers. Another highly informative and interesting full-color booklet at the trailhead walked us through the area, pointing out cool details and features including the naturally occurring "chimney rocks" which are born where a crack in the earth permits fresh oxygen down to feed the underground fire. The flames then bake the surrounding rocks with incredibly high heat. The chimneys are some of the strongest clinker around as a result--so strong they doesn't erode as readily. It wasn't necessarily the prettiest hike of the day, but it sure was fascinating. And there at least three different purple flowers, so that was pretty.
|The dark layer about half way up in the lignite coal layer, albeit not a 12 foot thick layer. This one was probably only a couple feet thick. Lignite is considered a low grade coal with minimal heat value.|
|A chimney monument to the coal vein fire.|
Buck Hill is the second highest point in the park and the highest point that is readily accessible. It was also probably our favorite scenic point--though the view at Boicourt Trail is a close contender. At 2,855 feet above sea level Buck Hill is a whole five (or ten, depending on who you ask) feet shorter than the nearby Peck Hill--the highest point. To call this a "hike" is a bit of a stretch in my opinion. A very short (like, .1 mile short) and reasonably steep "trail" (more like stairs) leads up from the parking area to a collection of flat rocks at the top of Buck Hill. This makes a very natural place to sit and stare, soaking it all in. The badlands go on and on and on all around--360 degrees of breathtaking. We hiked on past this stone overlook and found a nice, almost sandy place to sit and take in a slightly different view. Both were very lovely indeed and we had the place to ourselves.
|So. Many. Layers.|
The Boicourt Trail is wide and flat with an almost perfectly level grade--since it is handicap accessible--leading to some gorgeous views across the badlands. Technically speaking the hike is only .3 miles round-trip, but Matt and I continued on at the more primitive footpath that emerged once the maintained, accessible portion ended. We sat out on a point with a most stunning panoramic views of green southern-facing hills and an almost white, sun-baked gully below. We laid there until the winds picked up, racing over us since we were rather exposed. The return hike follows the same route back to the parking area, but as we approached we saw that several horses had moseyed over to graze. We had to leave the trail to give them a proper distance, not wanting to startle them away, and sure enjoyed their company. With a backdrop of endless badlands I sure felt like I was part of the wild, open West. It seemed timeless.
Wind Canyon is aptly named. It was indeed windy and the canyon walls are beautifully molded by that energy. The park newspaper says it has the, "best view of the Little Missouri River the South Unit has to offer." From what I saw of the South Unit I am inclined to heartily agree. It kicked the crap out of that Skyline Vista, that is for sure. The short trail--under half a mile round-trip--follows the edge of the cliff overlooking the river making for some gorgeous sights as we strolled along. The sunlight bouncing off the smooth, winding river was truly lovely. The sculptures wind-carved into the rocks were just bafflingly beautiful. After hiking out to the last overlook we stopped and let the wind blow as we listened and observed the huge landscape before us, knowing it was the end of our day--and what a good day it had been.
We stopped, briefly, at Peaceful Valley Ranch basically to observe some more of the feral horses--including an adorable little auburn foal that had caught my eye. The ranch was used as base of operations for horse trailrides through the park from the early 1900s through 2014. The ranch house is the only original ranch house still standing in the South Unit and was charming, in that classically worn-looking farmhouse style.
the recycling bins, of course!! Hooray for recycling glass in North Dakota when you can't easily recycle it in even the largest of Montana's cities!