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North Dakota's Petrified Forest

If you have never been to the petrified forest in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit, you might want to consider doing so this year. And even if you have been there before, another visit to see these remnants of another time is a worthwhile experience.

If you could travel back in time to 55-65 million years before present, a time period shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs and before the ice age, what is now North Dakota was subtropical — and could be characterized as supporting swamps and forested floodplains. It would've been similar to the coastal areas of the southeastern United States, comparable to the Everglades or Okefenokee.

Some of the trees fell into the water. With little oxygen in the water, decomposition was slow, and tree trunks became buried in sediment. With little decomposition, minerals in the water slowly penetrated the trunks and replaced the organic substances in the trunks, forming petrified wood. The variations of color of the petrified wood are a function of the minerals involved.

As many of you know, petrified wood can be found in many places in western North Dakota. It is less frequently observed eastward, and generally of smaller pieces, and perhaps not as fully petrified as that of the southwest. No doubt some of you have seen the 120-foot long redwood log on the Capital grounds, which was originally found near Dickinson.

It might surprise you, but North Dakota's petrified forest is considered to be the third highest concentration of petrified wood in the country. It is an interesting place. There are several stumps, some more than 10 feet in diameter. Plus, they're in their natural location.

The petrified forest is located off I-94 at Exit 23, west of Medora. There are 10 miles of trails there that enable visitors to see two areas of petrified forest, referred to as the north and south petrified forests. The trail also connects with the Maah Daah Hey Trail. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the area. The park service suggests 5-6 hours.

So, consider a trip to the petrified forest. A trip to the badlands is always interesting, and spending some time in the petrified forest is well worth visiting several times.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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