Badlands sprawl out in every direction I look.
East, west, south, or north, from the Ridgeline Nature Trail in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park it is easy to understand how the "badlands" term was coined.
Located 10.8 miles from the park's Medora entrance, the trail makes a short dash uphill through Rocky Mountain junipers to lead you up onto a grassy ridge that bends and twists and rises and falls. Though little more than a half-mile in length, the trail is a great introduction to the park's landscape.
Helping you understand what is spread out before you is the trail guide you should grab at the trailhead. It, along with 14 numbered posts dotting the trail, provides insights into the ecology that exists along the ridge.
As you gaze to the north, the layered badlands are easy to make out. With veins red, orange, black, blue, and gray, the landscape offers insights into the geologic processes that went into the making of it.
The bluish-gray layers, for instance, are the result of volanic ash -- perhaps from the last explosion of the Yellowstone caldera some 600,000 years ago? -- settling here and being compressed into bentonite clay. The black layers point to carbon deposition, from the muck of swamps that once stood here, that was compressed into coal.
Kids will enjoy hiking this trail, dashing through the grasslands and leap-frogging ahead to the next numbered post to find out what they are looking at. Some markers point out sage plants that are so common in the park and that played an important role in Native American life, some point to prickly pear cactus that actually thrives in these soils despite the park's northern location.
Fires also swept through this landscape, and is evidenced by blackened tree trunks here and there. Some junipers show bare patches where bison scratched an itch and in doing so scraped off the bark.
From start to finish you can complete this hike in less than a half hour, but it's worth it to linger and meander. Keen eyes will spot bison grazing down below, a redtail hawk overhead, or a prickly pear in bloom.
If You Go
Ridgeline Nature Trail
Trailhead Parking: Milepost 10.8
Distance: Six-tenths of a mile.
Payoff: A great view over the park's South Unit, good interpretation of the environmental and ecological factors at work here.