Burning Coal Vein and Columnar Junipers

Burning Coal Vein / Columnar Junipers

While the road to Burning Coal Vein Campground was well-marked, the extraordinary place named Burning Coal Vein / Columnar Junipers was not as obvious as expected.  On the second trip around the campground loop, I noticed a road that headed up the hill behind one of the campsites.  This unmarked road terminates at a large overlook at the top of the hill with a plaque discussing the Columnar Junipers.  This location provides fantastic views in all directions.  The only sign of human presence was the dirt road to the campground.

Burning Coal Vein / Columnar Junipers

The junipers, which have a columnar growth form instead of the typical rounded form are southwest of the overlook.  The plaque notes that the columnar form is believed to have been caused by the gases emitted by the burning coal vein.  This growth forms also occurs in areas with significant air pollution.

Columnar Junipers

There was no evidence of oil development in the vicinity of the site during the visit.

East River Road


A highlight of this first trip was East River Road  (US Forest Service 3).  Starting at the bend in US 85, roughly 2 miles west of Amidon and travelling north to Medora, I  was treated to some extremely beautiful parts of the state of North Dakota.  This dirt road runs roughly parallel to the Little Missouri River through the badlands.  Many spots rival scenery within Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but without the traffic and it is easy to stop almost any where to take a picture.

The area between Burning Coal Vein Campground (forest road 772) and Logging Camp Ranch (forest road 773) is wonderfully different from many other areas in North Dakota.  Rich stands of Ponderosa Pines make this feel like the Black Hills or points much further west.  This will be a great location to revisit when there is a little snow on the ground and in the trees.

Pretty Butte

Pretty Butte, Slope Co. ND

Pretty Butte is located at the far western edge of Slope County, near Marmarth (located on US 12 west of Bowman).  The butte is several miles north west of town on old ND 16.  The road is unpaved, but in good condition during this visit. There were no signs of oil development in the immediate vicinity of the butte, but some wells are visibile along US 12 near Marmarth, and the south west corner of the the state has some large and very active oil fields.  Reviews of GIS oil well data indicate exploration near the butte with a number of expired leases and dry holes nearby.

Marmarth is a small prairie town with a population less than 150 today. It had a much larger population at one time:  in 1911 it was the largest city in North Dakota.  Marmarth is filled with a number of wonderful old buildings.  The Barber Building, built in 1909, housed business on the first floor and an opera house upstairs that was the finest playhouse west of Minneapolis during its heyday.  The Mystic Theatre sits just across the street from the Barber Building and is run by the Marmarth Historical Society.

Marmarth, ND

Black Butte

Black Butte, Slope Co. ND

Black Butte is just across US 85 from White Butte. Black Butte is a typical box butte, markedly different from White Butte only a few miles away.  Dirt roads to the south, west, and north offer the best views.

There were no visible signs of oil development in the vicinity of Black Butte.  Review of the GIS data only indicate the presence of one expired permit in the township.

Black Butte, Slope Co. ND


Black Butte, Slope Co. ND

White Butte


White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota at 3506 feet, is located about 6.5 miles from Amidon in Slope County.  The county is the least populated in North Dakota with fewer than 750 residents (for a density of less than 1 person/square mile).  White Butte is part of the Chalky Buttes which can be seen east of US 85.  However, the best viewing location for White Butte is from the dirt road running north-south about 4 miles east of US 85.

White Butte is located on private property within the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

The was no visible evidence of oil exploration in the vicinity of White Butte at the time of the visit.  Review of GIS data indicates the presence of a dry hole several miles south west of the butte.

Preliminary Trip

I spent 14 hours on Sunday and 12 hours on Monday, 22 and 23 June, making a preliminary visit to a number of the North Dakota extraordinary places.  The trip covered roughly 300 miles (in a loop from Dickinson, ND) and was focused on locations south of Interstate 94.  I visited and photographed the following:

  • White Butte
  • Black Butte
  • Pretty Butte
  • Burning Coal Vein/Columnar Junipers
  • Tracy Mountain
  • Sentinel Butte
  • Camel’s Hump Butte
  • Little Missouri National Grasslands (a few locations south of I 94)
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (south unit)
  • Little Missouri River (in Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

In the next several posts, I will describe each of the locations, include some of my notes, and throw in a few digital images to provide a feeling for each place.

I am typically very conservative with the shutter and do not take many shots during an outing.  The fact that I filled three memory cards (150+ images) and shot 16 rolls of film (64 panorama shots) during the two days is a testament to the number of photographically interesting places that are on the list of North Dakota extraordinary places.

Maps of current rigs and wells (https://www.dmr.nd.gov/OaGIMS/viewer.htm) indicate much of the oil development is north of I 94 and west of ND 22.  There is relatively little oil development near the places I visited during this trip.  New wells are common along I 94 between Dickinson and Belfield and wells were visible in the vicinity of Tracy Mountain and the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt Park (especially near the north east boundary of the unit).

Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Use

Here are a couple of articles explaining the role of fresh water in the hydraulic fracturing process.


In addition to the water used in the initial fracturing process, Bakken wells need additional water to flush salty deposits out of the system and keep oil flowing during production.  See http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/11/131111-north-dakota-wells-maintenance-water/ for more details.