I had seen photos of the Badlands before I left for my trip to North Dakota. Most were not taken in winter. I didn’t know if I would see the colors in the rocks in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and, for the most part, I did not. The winter storm of the previous two days before my visit had caked snow on most surfaces. The Sun was out but with ambient temperatures in the -25 to -10 Fahrenheit range was not allowing for much melting even on a cloudless day.
The Badlands were formed over 60 million years. They are continuing to be changed by rain, thunderstorms and prairie fires. Lightning can ignite coal beds which can burn for years. These coal bed fires bake the overlying sediments into a hard, natural brick that geologists call porcelanite but is locally called scoria. The red color of the rock comes from the oxidation of iron released from the coal as it burns. The burning lends both color to the badlands and helps to shape them. These hardened rocks are more resistant to erosion than the unbaked rocks nearby. Over time, erosion has worn down the less resistant rocks, leaving behind a jumble of knobs, ridges, and buttes topped with durable red scoria caps.
Before I saw any wildlife, I saw tracks literally honeycombed in the snow on either side of the road as I drove deep into the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Then I saw this lone Elk on the top of a ridge.
Later I found a whole herd of Elk but, like this individual, they were too far away to get much more than small dots on a hill. Of course, after that I found a large herd of American Bison (buffalos). I’ll have more buffalo photos later this week.