Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Exploring the Great West: Day Five, Part One: The Petrified Forest Trail

This is a continuation of a travel series to The Great West.  To start at the beginning, go HERE,, HERE, and 

On the very last day inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we attempted to hike the Petrified Forest Loop.   I say attempted, because we were prohibited to hike the entire loop for we were thwarted by two buffalo!  But more on that later.

Me examining a piece of petrified wood

The biggest challenge of getting to the Petrified Forest is finding it.  You actually have to drive outside the park, and then thirty minutes on private gravel roads with very little help from road signs.  GPS does not work out there, so don't plan on using that.  They do give you very explicit instructions at the Visitor's Center on how to find the Petrified Forest.  You have to follow it exactly or you will get lost.  We found it with no problems on the way there, but we did get lost coming back out with no reverse directions.

While driving to the Petrified Forest, we spotted this pretty pronghorn deer.

If you think the park is desolate, the Petrified Forest is even more so!  Most people don't want to drive on gravel roads that long to get there.  But we did see a few crazy hikers, plus a couple on horseback.

Now the Petrified Forest is a 10.4 mile loop.  There are two sections of Petrified Wood on the trail with a connecting trail inbetween.  We did plan on hiking the entire loop, but after viewing the South Petrified Forest, we came across two buffalo.  One buffalo was sitting right on the trail, and the other was standing a few feet away.  At first we planned to give them a wide berth by walking off the trail, but because there were two of them, there was really no place for us to walk by.  So we had to turn around and go back the way we came.

We still got to see the North Petrified Forest.  We just walked back to the connecting point of the trail and headed north.  It really wasn't too bad.  When we did the math, we figured we shaved off about three miles from our hike without doing the loop.

It is 1.5 miles from the parking lot to the start of the trail.  And this part is a bit steep as you are climbing to get up on top of a butte.  Once you are on top, it's very level and you are pretty much walking through a beautiful prairie land.  

It is definitely buffalo land, and you see their patties everywhere!  But because it was so open, I wasn't that nervous for I could see very far ahead of me and could easily spot a buffalo.

The prairie land is very pretty.  There are stunning buttes in the background.  We ran into another hiker on this trail and he said "Who knew North Dakota was so pretty?".  He is so right.

In the picture below I am standing at the top of the butte.  We are still not at the start of the trailhead yet.  If you look below me, in the center of the picture, you can see cars parked in the parking lot.  That will give you some idea of how far we already walked and how steep the climb is.

We got on the trail and were surprised to find spots of fall foliage in a more desert landscape.

The South Petrified Forest

There were no signs saying we arrived at the Petrified Forest, but we knew we were there when we spotted all the petrified wood.

I thought the South Petrified Forest was prettier than the North Petrified Forest because of all the wild flowers.  However, the North Petrified Forest had more petrified wood and incredible geological formations.

The South Petrified Forest was like a small sandpit surrounded by evergreens and even greener landscape in the background.  

The petrified wood can sometimes look like rocks or boulders, but a closer look reveals the wood pattern.  They are as heavy as a rock, that's for sure.  My husband picked one up that looked like a log you would throw in the fireplace.  He said "When you pick it up, you expect it to weigh what a log weighs, but it's as heavy as lifting a boulder."

I thought there were some beautiful sand colors in many of the geological formations that reminded me of the Painted Canyon.

Well, after viewing the South Petrified Forest we were about to hike the 2.5 mile connecting trail to the North Petrified Forest.

 We had to first climb up another steep hill to reach the top of another butte.

And when we reached the top, that's when we saw them.  Now what do we do.  We really didn't want to turn around.  So, we decided to keep walking toward them and give them a wide birth.  One buffalo was sitting right on the trail.  The say to keep 25 yards away from buffalo, that would mean we would have to walk 25 yards off the trail in the grass.  We decided to go for it, but I must admit, I was terrified.  And then the big buffalo stopped eating, and stopped wagging his tail, and looked up at us.  We did not like the look in his eyes, so we did an about face and went back the way we came.

I really wasn't too bummed about it.  I was prepared for this to happen eventually because in all the park reviews almost every hiker came across buffalo and couldn't complete one of their hikes.  I don't think it would have been that exciting of a hike anyway as the connector trail is basically just walking a flat prairie.  

So we decided to return to the start of the trail, and then head over to the North Petrified Forest.  I was surprised at what a short walk it was back to the start of the trail.  The longest part really was from the parking lot to the start of the trail.

The views seemed even more pretty on the return trip.  I don't know what it is, I always prefer loops than one ways on hikes, but you always seem to see things differently and/or get a different view than you did on the way there anyway.

The North Petrified Forest

If you don't want to do both trails nor hike the 10 mile loop, you can just pick Petrified Forest to view.  If petrified wood is really your thing, I would go to the North Petrified Forest as it definitely has the most petrified wood.  But I do think the South Petrified Forest is prettier.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to the third largest concentration of petrified wood in the nation.  These geological wonders allow hikers to travel back to a time when, instead of buttes and prairies, the landscape was dominated by massive trees and shallow swamps. 

In the photo below is an entire petrified tree that fell down and then was fossilized.

In addition to petrified wood, the North Petrified Forest has lots of other interesting geological formations.

The North Petrified Forest also offers a scenic view of the badlands.  Notice all the petrified wood stumps in the foreground and middle of the picture?  They can blend right into the landscape like boulders.  If I had little kids with me I would have played a game "Who can spot the most petrified wood" as it can be tricky!

It can be hard to get an idea of how big some of these petrified wood stumps are until you put a person in the picture.  This stump was one of the biggest ones we found.

The petrified wood is so fascinating to see up close and examine.

There is a petrified wood stump that looks like it's teetering on top of a small butte.

As we were just about at the end of exploring the North Petrified Forest hubby spotted the biggest buffalo we had seen on our trip yet.  He was quite a distance away, but because he was so large, we decided it was time to high tail it out of there!

When we got back to our car, there was still a lot of day light left, so we decided to return to our hotel and freshen up a bit, then grab some lunch and explore the town of Medora.  I will share that post in two weeks and it will complete this series.

Have A Great Day!  Amy

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  1. I can see why you liked the south forest more than the north as it's more colorful, but they both look really interesting!
    Good decision to turn around when you encountered the 2 buffalo, you just never know how they may act.

    1. Yes, the south was far prettier but geologists probably would have preferred the north. And yes, although I loved Theodore Roosevelt National Park I felt the buffalo ruined the experience for me. I know that sounds silly as people go to national parks to see wildlife, and that part was wonderful. It was just so frustrating because we couldn't comfortably hike a single trail without worrying about it or running into them. I like the way Custer Park handled their buffalo. They were essentially contained (although we did see a few strays here and there) in a certain area of the park.

  2. Both of those forests look neat but I too would probably have preferred the south with all the pretty flowers around.

  3. Love it so much. So beautiful.

  4. An exciting expedition! Never saw anything like that.

    1. It sure was. We've seen maybe one solitary piece of petrified wood on a hike before, but nothing like this.

  5. I really, really have been enjoying your travel account. An amazing experience. I loved our visit AZ Petrified Forest NP. The cross section of a polished piece of petrified wood looks more like a stone than a wood really. They are amazing, aren't they?!


    1. Thank you. When researching for this post I saw there was a Petrified Forest NP. I didn't know that. I hope I can go there someday.

  6. Mother Nature at it's best! These photos I am sure doesn't do this place justice but thank you for sharing them for those of us that can't quite visit it yet. And how cool to see Buffalos? But yes, I can only imagine what you felt especially since you weren't able to really get a good glimpse or feel for the trail with them everywhere.

    Maureen |

    1. Yes, the photos do not do the place justice. It's such a gorgeous landscape. The buffalo were cool, but scary when you're all alone on a trail and spot one.


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