Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

The North Unit Drive and the Sperati Point Trail

Tuesday July 29, 2014
Juniper Campground North Unit
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Dakota






The North Unit Park Drive is not a loop.  It runs 13.7 mile from the visitor center and dead ends on a high butte overlooking the Oxbow in the Little Missouri River.

There are several lovely pull outs, many informational pullouts and a couple of short trails that run off of the drive.  David wants to look for big horn sheep but he didn’t really want to get up early enough to see them grazing just after sunrise so he has decided that we will do the drive West from the campground this morning and East of the campground later.  The western section rises up to the high butte from the river bottom where we are now.





The campground is at mile post 4.6.  Directly across from the campground entrance is the Cannonball Concretion Pullout but he wants to do that last so on we go climbing climbing into the sky and skipping everything between here and Milepost 7.8, River Bend Overlook. 

This is a gorgeous spot and the CCC boys have erected a stone shelter with a fabulous view of the Little Missouri River 550 feet below.  The overlook shelter is constructed of sandstone slabs and was built in 1937.   The flat are on either side of the river is the floodplain. 

The Little Missouri River below is variable in size and depth over the course of a year.  In the spring and early summer, it may be bank full (7-8 feet deep) and strong enough to transport entire cottonwood trees they say.  But right now it is very very shallow.  Even later in the summer they say it may stop flowing altogether on the surface.







David walks around the shelter to the right luckily and as he comes across the back next to the edge, he sees someone has very recently posted a sign written on notebook paper warning of a rattle snake in the shelter’s outside rocks around the corner. David peeks around and sure enough, the rattles are hanging out. He turns around and goes back the way he came. Very nice and thoughtful of whoever discovered this to post the sign which will protect everyone coming from that direction at least until it rains.






While we are here, David is scanning all the rocks in every direction for big horn sheep.  No success.  But we do see how wide, flat and shallow the Little Missouri is.



Our next stop is at milepost 12.4 entitled Edge of Glacier Pullout.  Here there are some glacial erratics in the prairie grasses which cover the top of this butte.  These scientists say were drug here and left from up in Canada.  The glaciers stopped just below the north unit and did not affect the south unit geology.  I’m told that is why the north unit has such a much more rugged look.   It is interesting to see these giant stones sitting in a sea of yellow sweet clover.










Of course each time we stop we have to look out with our binoculars to the south on the rocks to check for Big Horn Sheep.





The end of the road is the Oxbow Overlook.  Even though it is almost 11:00 and the sun is beating down, we hike out the Sperati Trail which goes through the Prairie atop the Butte about a mile hopefully to get the best look at the oxbow.  Based on the intensity of that sun, I’d say this butte is about 1000 feet from it.  This trail feels a lot longer than 1 mile.

Some folks obviously don’t mind this heat at all.








The story here is pretty interesting. Apparently prior to the ice age, the Little Missouri joined the Yellowstone River near Williston ND and flowed on to the Hudson Bay. A southward advancing glacier blocked the northern route of the ancient Little Missouri just west of here. The glacier dammed the river and formed a temporary lake which increased in depth until it overflowed to the east over the containing walls of the ancient valley. When the glacier melted, the Little Missouri did not return to its old river bed. Instead it continued to flow eastward rapidly eroding downward over the steeper course. The river found a new course through the gap here between Sperati Point to the west and the Achenbach Hills to the east. It now empties into the Gulf of Mexico via the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Isn’t it amazing what geologists can tell us.


The oxbow is really cool.  Sure wish we could kayak.  If you want to kayak, come earlier in the year when the water is higher.





It seems a forever walk back under the HOT sun.  



Back in the car with the AC on HIGH, we head down toward the campground.  The scenery on the way is eye popping.




But we’re finished for this day until the sun goes much further down in the sky.




After dinner, at 6:00 we go out to do the lower part of the drive.  From the campground we head down to milepost 2.1, the Longhorn Pullout. 

South of the road is the floodplain of the river.  This terrace is covered by river sediments deposited during the last 5,000 years.  The predominant silver-gray sagebrush provides food for mule deer and shelter for birds and other small animals.  

At this spot, supposedly a herd 15 to 25 long horn cattle can be seen in the early mornings and late afternoons.  Right now these smart cattle are in the shade of the cottonwood trees in the distance. The buttes are on the far side of the river.  I’ve been hoping to see a real  live longhorn not in some sort of confinement.  But not today.  We either have to get out earlier – pretty near impossible for David – or skip the ranger talks in the evening and come out then, also hard for David.




Turning back up the drive we stop at mile post 2.8 marked as the Slump Block Pullout which describes another interesting geological anomaly.    Layers of weaker sediments sometimes give way due to the weight of overlying rocks.  As a result, the rocks above may slide or tumble down below the weaker layers.  They slump downhill. The sign gives an explanation of what happened and an excellent graphic so I can understand that it isn’t a landslide. It’s a slump.

The slump, of course, is resting in front of the rest of the formation but  it appears that neither of us took a distant picture of the slump section in front of the larger formation but you can see how the slump is tilted back and the larger formation from which it came is erect.  So we have a close up but not a distance shot of the slump.


Here’s the slump.  Notice the sloping lines and at the very top the dark green trees.




I’m pretty sure this is the area that it slumped from since the dark green trees on that little hill on the left is the slump now that it has been covered with vegetation on the south side.   See the same lines on the erect formations.  Really cool no?




But wait until you see this.   Our last stop is the pull out just across from the campground entrance.  The Cannonball Concretion pullout is the most fun of them all. 

Round concretions like the ones on the ground and weathering out of this cliff ere formed by the cementing actions of ground water.  Although most of them are round, they can actually be any shape.

Before the erosion of the badlands began, groundwater seeped slowly through these sediments for millions of years.  The water contained minerals which, when they were precipitated out of solution, cemented the sand grains together.  As a result, even though these concretions contain the same sized sand grains as does the surrounding sand, they are much more resistant to erosion.  The concretions are weathering out of a 30 to 40 foot thick sandstone bed – an ancient river deposit.

The concretions are formed within rocks, shale,sandstone, clay etc, by minerals being deposited around a core.  More concretions will be exposed here as erosion continues.  Too cool!

They are on both sides of this large formation.







The effects of water in this entire park are amazing but none more fantastic than here.  We walk around on the other side not facing the pull out parking and find not only more concretions but beautiful artwork.



This is one of my favorites.   Look at this design, compliments of water.






Not quite tall enough for David














Our final find of the day is driving down the campground road when we happen on a turkey jam.  We surprise a flock of turkeys and they us.  I wasn’t fast enough to get the group together before they panicked and started running down the road but here are a few of them once they got over most of their fright.   Although one of them just sat down in the middle of the road.   Turkeys really are so funny.











Eventually they head off into the grasses and the little ones are nearly lost from sight.





We have one more day here in the North Unit and we plan to get out early.  Hmmmm how likely is that really??

We move to the North Unit and Get Heated Up

Monday July 28, 2015
Juniper Campground North Unit
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Dakota



We’re moving on to the North Unit of the Park


We are on the road by 9:15 am MST for the 80 mile drive to the North Unit of the park.  We’ve been told this area is much more rugged.   We have to go back east 15 miles on I-94, then about 65 miles north on US 85.   The drive has some pretty serious hills but other than that is very easy.  There is a lot of oil fracking equipment working sadly.  We have been drinking bottled water because we are worried about the damage to the water table by this process.  They say the wells are so low it’s not a problem but I lived through all the tobacco company lies so I don’t believe anything anyone says who stands to lose their profit if something is found to be a health concern.

At one point when we were very close, we come up to the top of the hills and the view coming down was enough to make your eyes pop out.  It is one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen.  These are definitely more rugged badlands.  Because we were driving separate so I could gas up Ruby, I couldn’t stop and take a picture of this amazing sight.  There definitely should be a scenic pull over there so people don’t run off the road.



Juniper Campground is our destination.



We arrive at Juniper campground about 12:15 CDT, I had assumed that checkout time was noon as it was in Cottonwood.  We hoped to be able to have our pick of sites since it was Monday but the campground is much smaller than Cottonwood and there are only a few sites open that would work for Winnona. 

When I arrive, I check the information boards for  checkout time.  I asked at the tiny Visitor Center and the person at the desk says he didn’t know of one.   Much of the campground is full and I guess everyone stays as long as they want.  I later saw people pulling out at 5:00 and later, one of them from a much nicer site than we had taken, but I’m not one for going to all the trouble to pull up stakes and button up the ship and change sites especially since we are only here for 3 nights.  The take home message here is that there is no way to plan when to come to increase your odds.  But probably Friday or Saturday would decrease them.


Our site is #42.  It is right on the road and shares the back of our drive in with the top of the one behind us and the front of our drive in with the back of the one in front of us.  In essence this makes the site even longer.  There is as you can see no privacy.  It is in the full sun which is great for the solar panels but terrible for Winnona in what turns out to be the hottest 3 days we have spend in the park.

We also changed into Central Time coming here and had changed our clocks last night so we could be here by noon or so their time.   Thus we have an extra hour once we arrive.   We check out the visitor center.  It’s tiny but cute.  It has nice but small book selection, the great hand puppets we’ve seen at the other 2 centers and the staff is very helpful in recommendations for hikes, confirming that the river is too slow to kayak and other things we always ask.  It also has an excellent 15 minute film on the North Unit which I actually thought was better than the film at the much bigger VC in the south.  If you come here, view them both and see what you think.



We have time in the evening to hike the short trail in the campground.



After dinner we take the Little Mo Trail.  The temperatures changed for this week and the highs are in the upper 80’s but it feels much much hotter than that.  Is the sun really closer to us up here?  We go out at 6:00 and it is really still too hot.  I am dragging and wilting until 7:00 when things began to cool off.  SO apparently we have been very lucky to have had unusually nice weather for July in TRNP.  I suggest if you are coming here that you plan for June.  And you definitely should come.

The Little Mo trail takes you, surprise surprise, down by the Little Missouri River which flows all the way through the park.  The trail is 1.2 miles.  7/10ths of those are paved and handicapped accessible.  The other is a dirt trail through the vegetation and up to the top of a butte overlooking the river. 



A bridge takes us across one of the little tributary streams that flows into the Little Missouri and there is a very nice CCC picnic pavilion with the giant timbers and rocks so characteristic of their work.  Inside is a large big stone fireplace and a stone floor.



The path leads us directly to the river where we can see raccoon and deer tracks in the river bottom mud.   The Missouri is a very different river from any we’ve seen before.  It is apparently quite volatile.  We see clear evidence that the river had flooded at least 10 feet above where we see it now.   But today it is slow, wide and shallow.   It’s hard to believe that this river with the help of erosion carved out  the canyons which surround it.

These little ducks zoom across the water away from the shore as we approach the river overlook.  By the time I could get my camera on them, they were a bit distant for a sharp picture.  I’m thinking these are mallard ducklings but I’m not sure.  If you know them or have a better guess, I’d love to hear it.  They were very cute.  I did not see any adults around.



The Little Missouri River




The birds take over our attention.

As we walk back from the river, birds are flying in and out among the trees and bushes.  With binoculars to our eyes we look to see who they are.  Tree swallows I think. (picture previous).  They are quite vocal in their soft sort of way and then I see what I think is the reason.  Right next to me on the path on a low branch is this little one.  When he doesn’t fly away as I take his picture I begin to worry about him but he seems big enough to take care of himself and I’m not sure what to do so I leave it to those I assume are his parents.  Bird lovers, is this the right thing to have done?




The path takes us through the sage along the river’s edge where we hear and then back into the prairie where we see the Western Meadowlark who appears also to like the sage as a singing platform.






It’s all about water and geology.


The trail through the grasses then goes over to a small butte with cool steps going up to the top for an elevated river view.  The butte has lots of capstones all along the side facing the river.  The details are just captivating.  It’s all about water and geology.











From here David takes this panorama shot of the bend in the river.  Above you see the two shots, I have to take to show each end from our higher vantage point. That’s one thing I really miss from my previous camera. It had all sorts of easy to use settings for great panoramas, fireworks, sunsets and lots of other things. It wasn’t a point and shoot exactly since it was bigger and had a view finder but it had many of those features which I miss.





It’s a good thing we always bring our binoculars.


Back on the grasslands we cross a service road and see the Common Flicker on the ground.   He’s on the road, in the bushes and constantly moving so my pictures of him are catch as catch can.  But he’s a beautiful bird we recognize as a resident at the farm in Virginia.  Clearly flickers get around.



Just a little further down we come upon another recognizable face, the Brown Thrasher. He and two or three lark sparrows are vying for whatever it is they find  interesting on this gravel path.





As we are nearing the end of the trail there is a heavily treed and bushed section where birds are flitting everywhere. We can’t keep up with who is flying but we definitely recognize another farm frequenter, the Cedar Wax Wing.  We recognize their squeaky vocalizations before we even see them.  I think they are such a sleek handsome bird with the black mask, hair tuft and soft muted colors

And there are a pair of brightly colored birds that we follow and take numerous pictures of as they chase each other around and then sit on the branches near each other. I later discover they are a pair of Orchard Orioles. The orange one is an adult male, the yellow one is an immature male. 








The sun has been so bright today that my eyes have started complaining and now as it lowers in the sky it is shining right in my eyes.  Time for me to go in but one more bird catches my tired eyes.  This time it is the female orchard oriole whom I misidentified until the Bird Lady of Blogland set me straight.  She’s amazing in what she knows.   This little miss is a beauty though isn’t she.




What a birding evening. 


We had no idea that between 6 and 8 pm we could see and see so many different species.  We walk back in time for David to go to the campground program on the CCC.   I know you are not surprised.  I tease him that he could give these programs now. 

They were here  from 1934 to 1942 and created most of the infrastructure of what became the North Unit of the park.   It seems we see their work  in nearly every campground we stay in.   I feel like singing “they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere”.

But instead I work on getting the blog on the Petrified Forest ready to publish.   However we have no verizon phone signal and only a weak verizon data signal with our booster.  Actually here we are using our cradlepoint set up with its antenna to bring in the 3G rather than much weaker 4G signal.   It seems to do the trick for email and for most web browsing but after 45 minutes of trying to get it to publish the Petrified Forest post I just wait until the next morning when we are on our way up to the highest spot in the park and take care of it in about 2 minutes.   

But the highest point in the park is a story for tomorrow. 
One last picture of our beautiful Little Missouri River Bottom neighborhood.