Petrified forest provides trip back in time
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, N.D. - It's not an easy trip, this voyage through time. First, there is a 5-mile rough gravel road. Then comes a dirt road with deep ruts.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, N.D. - It's not an easy trip, this voyage through time.
First, there is a 5-mile rough gravel road. Then comes a dirt road with deep ruts. Next is a hole in a tall fence that a big person might have trouble crawling through.
The walk through a lush meadow - lush by badlands standards, at least - is pleasant, with an occasional wildflower showing through green grass and a little bird chirping now and again.
Soon, a hiker faces a steep uphill climb to a plateau, followed by a treacherous downhill path fit for a mountain goat.
Finally, after little more than a mile, there is a gray, nearly barren patch of ground that transports the hiker back in time - way back.
In this old world, crocodiles, alligators and the croc-like champsosaurus rule a nearby swamp. Gar and fresh-water bow fish swim the waters along with freshwater rays.
After surviving the extinction of the dinosaurs - a mere 5 million years earlier - soft-shell and snapping turtles slowly make their way around.
Snails and mollusks similar to mussels are plentiful.
Huge dawn redwood, magnolia, gingko, cypress, date and palm trees provide shade from the steamy heat.
Dragon flies and birds flitter about while a lemur-like mammal slowly eats his meal.
It may look like south Florida, but the time traveler's destination is the western North Dakota of 60 million years ago.
It's hard to envision that life-filled, busy world while standing on today's eerily quiet plateau in southwestern North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. But look closer. Those big rocks all around this inhospitable area are petrified stumps from trees that stood during those busier, noisier times. The little flat rocks scattered about are chips from the petrified stumps and pieces of tree trunks.
Park officials say this out-of-the-way petrified forest - and the time travel it provides - is becoming a popular tourist destination.
The area may be a couple of acres, with some petrified stumps standing upright, some on their sides. Some look much like they did 60 million years ago; others are deformed after millions of years underground.
Pieces of petrified wood litter the nearly plant-free ground.
"Petrified wood is probably the most common fossil found in North Dakota," State Paleontologist John Hoganson said.
Petrified wood is so common in southwestern North Dakota that when Interstate 94 was built west of Dickinson, no one wanted a 120-foot-long petrified log construction workers unearthed. Ranchers in the area toss the wood-turned-rock into piles.
Associate Professor Joseph Hartman of the University of North Dakota said most of the state's petrified wood lies in an area between Williston and Interstate 94, east nearly to the Missouri River.
To people who don't regularly trip over petrified wood, the hike to the park's petrified forest is a great way to walk through a time warp.
"Sixty million years ago you would have been standing in a swampy lowland surrounded by huge trees, similar to the swampy areas of south Florida today," Hoganson said.
The conditions stretched from western North Dakota into Montana and Wyoming
"Eventually, there was a climate change," Hoganson said. "Basically, this area of the world became drier and cooler so these swamps dried up and these huge trees, these forests, died."
When some trees died, the trunks fell and rotted away, leaving stumps. Wet sediment, maybe carried by flood waters, covered the stumps and the few trunks that had not rotted.
"They have been hermetically sealed from the outside environment," said Hartman, a geology professor. "Nothing is going to happen if it is exposed to the air."
Mineral-rich water soaked into the buried wood, and over millions of years minerals replaced wood.
The petrification process left rocks that look like wood. In some cases, the process was so precise that each ring in a tree trunk could be counted; in other cases, like most in North Dakota, a less exact replica resulted.
Eventually, water and wind erosion - processes that created the rugged badlands that are home to Roosevelt park - revealed some of the petrified wood.
"Some of those trees were huge," Hoganson said.
The biggest he has seen sits in the Long X Trading Post, a new Watford City information center. The stump, 9 feet in diameter and 8 feet tall, weighs 16,000 pounds.
More such treasures await future generations.
"A lot of the petrified stumps are still embedded in the hills, in the buttes," Hoganson said.
While North Dakota's petrified wood has been a nuisance to many area residents and rich research tool for scientists, average folks now often take close looks at it.
"More and more people are interested in eco tourism, nature tourism," Hoganson said. "In North Dakota, we are really trying to promote that from the area of paleontology. For the right group of people, these places are destination points."
Those people are just waiting for a time machine, like the petrified forest, to take them away.
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Don Davis at (651) 290-0707