Painted Canyon Overlook

Painted Canyon Overlook, Theodrore Roosevelt National Park

One of the most spectacular vistas of the badlands in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is from the Painted Canyon Overlook and Rest Area on I 94 located east of Medora. Scattered storms moving across the landscape created some dramatic lighting during our stop for a picnic dinner.

No oil development is allowed in the park, but Painted Canyon is at risk because very active oil fields are just outside the park boundaries. Some of these developments are visible on the east rim of the canyon from the overlook (out of frame to the right, in this case).

Little Missouri National Grasslands

The Little Missouri Grassland is the largest grassland under federal administration at a little over 1,028,000 acres.  It encompasses parts of McKenzie, Billings, Slope, and Golden Valley counties in North Dakota.  Ownership within the grassland is mixed:  lands are owned by federal and state agencies and by private individuals. Many of the public lands are leased for grazing.  The public lands within the grassland collectively are one of the extraordinary places in North Dakota.

We did not explicitly document grassland areas in Slope and Golden Valley counties during this trip.  A future trip will include careful documentation of the existing diversity of habitats and an assessment of the impact of oil development.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit)

Theodrore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park may be the most recognizable location on the list of North Dakota extraordinary places. The park includes three separate geographic locations: the south unit, the north unit, and Elkhorn Ranch. The south unit, located just north on I 94 at Medora is visited by thousands each year.

The 36-mile scenic loop trail is a main attraction in the south unit. The loop travels through a variety of badlands habitats, providing a good introduction to the geology and ecology of the region. At some times of hte year, there can be significant traffic and limited opportunities to stop to explore and photograph along this road (only the pull-outs and overlooks make it possible to get safely out of traffic). Construction on the road to the scenic loop also meant 30+ minute delays during our visit. Similar scenery can be found outside the park, where it is more accessible and there is less traffic (for example, see East River Road).

Highlights along the scenic loop are Buck Hill and Wind Canyon. There are 360-degree views from Buck Hill, including a different view of the often photographed Painted Canyon. At Wind Canyon trail, a high ridge overlooks the Little Missouri River and some fantastic wind-sculpted sand and rock.

Theodrore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit

The south unit sits among very active oil development:  the pale yellow area in the following map is the approximate location of the park.  (Legend to GIS Maps)

Wells - TRNP South

Development surrounds and threatens the park.  Oil wells are visible just outside the park on the ridges to the east of Painted Canyon (from Buck Hill) and to the northeast of the park from the scenic loop near the Boicourt Overlook (following picture).

Theodrore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit


Little Missouri River

The list of extraordinary places includes the entire length of the Little Missouri River. Our path came near the river in a number of places on this first trip, but we did not make an explicit effort to locate as many documentation locations as possible. Here are two representative locations for this trip.

Bend in the river north of Logging Camp Ranch Road (a few miles west of Burning Coal Vein Campground).


A spectacular view of the river from the Wind Canyon Overlook in the south unit of Thodore Roocevelt National Park.

Theodrore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit

We did not see evidence of oil development close to the river in the areas we visited on this first trip. Analysis of GIS data on oil activities will be included with efforts to document the river more thoroughly on a future trip.


Camel’s Hump Butte

Camel's hump Butte

This cone-shaped butte is located just north of I 94, only a few miles west of Medora. Unpaved roads provide good views of the butte from the south, east, and northeast (photo above). Roads to south and east are narrow and unimproved and may be difficult after rain fall.

There is no visible evidence of oil development in the vicinity although GIS data indicate there are several dry holes in the township.

Sentinel Butte

Sentinel Butte is an irregularly-shaped, flat-topped butte located less than 20 miles west of Medora and a few miles south of I 94. Some sources suggest that it is possible to drive to the top of the butte, but the most likely road was posted with several No Trespassing signs at the time of my visit.

A small active oil field is located 5-10 miles to the east near Square Butte, but there is little evidence of oil development in the immediate area (only one dry hole recorded within several miles). However, much of the potential scenic value of the area is already lost due to the presence of cell phone and communications towers on the flat top of the butte. It is difficult to take a photograph of the area that does not include these man-made structures. There are a few locations on the closest roads to the south east and east where it was possible to find an angle where the towers are not (or are only slightly) visible.

Tracy Mountain

Tracy Mountain is a little difficult to view from the road, particularly if one is looking for an angle that does not include evidence of oil development.  This “butte” is about a mile from the nearest road and oil development is common to the south and southwest of the location along much of Tracy Mountain Road from its west end where it meets East River Road to the point of the photograph.

Tracy Mountain

The best location I found during this trip was to the south east, just past the point that Tracy Mountain Road crosses Merrifield Creek.  An aside:  Merrifield Creek was the site of a pipeline (saltwater) leak earlier this year.  The soil where the road crosses the creek had recently been replaced when we visited.

An oil well south of Tracy Mountain.  Several wells are visible along Tracy Mountain Road, some of them back right up to the hills just south of the butte.


Here is a map of oil development in the area.  Tracy Mountain is located roughly at T138N  R101w, section 10, near the northeast end of the Tracy Mountain oil field.  Active wells (the dark circles; see for map legend) are located to the south and south west of Tracy Mountain field.  The active Medora and Fryburg oil fields are located to the northwest and northeast, respectively.



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