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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??


  1. The turkeys seem to have taken a page from "The Book of Bison", which describes to the bison how to intimidate marauders that come on the concrete ribbon to invade their territory. The big, round rocks look like water balloons! ;->

    Virtual hugs,


  2. That is an amazing place we just MUST SEE!
    Thanks for the tour and pics.

  3. Interesting rock formations, love the turkeys.

  4. The rock formations were so unexpected...which makes them all the more wonderful. Turkeys are always so entertaining...dumb but entertaining! Great day!

  5. You took some wonderful photos of the rocks and views, and also of the turkeys. What a beautiful place it is.

  6. Only one more day...I'll be sad to see you go! Great shots of the thistle and the river.

  7. I love the cannonballs, never heard of them before.

  8. Loving this geology. Those are the most monstrous sized concretions I've ever seen. Just gotta' laugh at turkeys. Hope you can get out early.

  9. Turkey Jam... too funny;o)) Rattlesnake... not so funny'o(( But those concretions were amazing!!!

  10. Never heard of a concretion...how interesting. So glad Pops was warned away from the rattles! No sheep yet, but great views, although that one hike sounded way too hot!!

  11. If you get to southern California and the Anza Borrego State Park, you will have many opportunities to see Big Horn Sheep. Daughter Jojo was sitting on a rock near a watering hole, up walks a Big Horn on a close by boulder and just stands there looking at her. You should see the photos she took! We missed our BH sighting by about 10 minutes near the same place. You've just got to go to see, and climb....but no kayaking.

  12. When I get frustrated with my fellow humans I'll have to remember the little duct taped sign :-). Nothing to be gained for the person who left it, just acknowledging they don't walk this planet alone. Nice for the snake(s) as well - bet they'd all appreciate a "Do Not Disturb" sign. It's fascinating to me that "we" can look at a landscape and know what formed it a million years ago. We love learning the geology of an area - Bill will wet himself when he sees those round concretions :-)))).

  13. Wow! Love the concretions! I am now actively looking at how to incorporate this Park in our travels next summer!

  14. I love all the geological formations. Too bad there's no time lapse video spanning several million years that shows us exactly how all those beautiful formations really were carved and how those large round stones actually got deposited where they look totally out of place.

  15. Whoa, glad you didn't meet that rattler face to face.

    Those round concretions are something. Once again, nature continues to amaze! :c)

  16. We did get to the cannonball area. They are so unique. A very cool area.

  17. What a beautiful place - more vast open spaces and those very cool concretions and beautiful formations! I love the turkeys!! Thanks for another wonderful tour!!

  18. Meant to also say how wonderful it was of the person warning of the rattlesnakes - eeek!!

  19. Nothing to say that others haven't already said....what a wonderful, marvelous, unique place! There is always something new to see on this planet we call home! Why do so many take it for granted?

  20. I'm hooked on Geology, took several courses in college. The different formations and how they're formed has always been fascinating to me. This place looks like a geologist's dream!

  21. Wonderful pictures!


  22. Wow. What an amazing place. I love the slumps and the cannonballs. Very interesting. I had never heard of such things. Who would have known ND could be so interesting. I think yours is the first blog I've read where anyone toured ND, and even Al who is a Nodak hasn't been there.

  23. Took a couple of semesters of geology in college, it's amazing what mother nature and water can do. You keep adding to our bucket list of places to go.

  24. Spectacular scenery and great wildlife too. I love these wide open spaces.

  25. For no more recognition than TRNP gets, it surely seems to be a beautiful place. I guess it's just so far out off the beaten path. . .too bad. I'm so glad my brother reminded me about it. . .

  26. Concretions!! I've never heard of such a thing -- your photos are wonderful and made me feel as though I was right there with you. Looks like another place we need to visit….

  27. Rock formations are awesome. That one round one looks like a giant avocado pit. Turkeys are so ugly they're cute. There were tons of them at Best Friends that just hung around. Concretions- what a weird word!

  28. P.S. The brown part of the rock formation in the photo before the one of David hiking, looks like a fat antelope was going into the rocks and got stuck. Love the last photo of the turkey in the grass. Really beautiful!


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