The Badlands Of Eastern Montana
Rising from the Yellowstone valley and surrounding prairies is a broad region of seeming disarray—bad lands. Hogback ridges, fluted hillsides, pinnacles, and caprocks ornament a network of buttes. The mineral-banded, soft, sedimentary rocks with their decor of contrasting pines and junipers create a panorama of unique shapes and colors that has a chameleon character, changing with the ever-varying pattern of light and shadow from the passing sun, clouds, moon, and seasons.
When this intriguing, rugged, yet delicate land was set aside as a state park in 1953 it was called Makoshika (Mako’-she-ka). The name is a variant spelling of a Lakota phrase meaning land of bad spirits, “badlands.”
A Look At the Past…
These badlands expose older rock layers than those in the badlands of the Dakotas. Here, the Yellowstone River and its tributaries cut into a fascinating transition in time: the passing from the Age of Reptiles, so dramatically represented by the dinosaurs, to the Age of Mammals.
Most of these strata are the brownish-gray sediments of the Hell Creek Formation dating back 65 million years ago when the Rocky Mountains were rising in the west. At that time, this area was rivers and flood plains similar to the present southeastern United States with sub-tropical climate and vegetation. It was the Cretaceous Period, the “Age of Reptiles.” Rivers draining the western mountains deposited layer upon layer of sediments which over millions of years compacted to form the sandstones, mudstones, clays, and shales that form the badlands landscape.
Above the Hell Creek Formation and visible in the upper 100 feet or so of the highest areas of the park are the yellowish sediments of the Fort Union Formation. These Paleocene age strata mark the beginning of the “Age of Mammals” that began about 64 million years before the present.
One of the criteria geologists use to determine the age of rock formations is fossil evidence (remains of prehistoric life). Here, in the Hell Creek Formation, over 10 species of dinosaurs are found. The most well known are Triceratops, Edmontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex. Parts of fish (sturgeon and gar) turtles, lizards, crocodiles, birds, and early mammals are found in these Cretaceous-Age strata. In the Paleocene-Fort Union Formation no dinosaur remains are found. These Paleocene sediments were deposited after the dinosaurs and many other reptilians became extinct. Mammal remains are present but in scant numbers. Plant fossils like ginko and sequoia are more common.
It is only within the past several million years that erosion dissected these ancient sediments offering us the opportunity to look into the past to that time of evolutionary transition. But imagination is required to envision those primeval, tropical environments and creatures, for the setting is quite different now.
The Present. . .
Erosion has carved an island of contemporary upland prairie, studded by pines and divided into finger-like mesas by the mostly barren, steep-walled, gullied slopes. Instead of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex we might see mule deer, cottontails and turkey vultures.
As much as water is a factor in eroding the shapes of this land so it is a critical factor in determining what kind and how much life this land can support. Average annual precipitation is from 12” to 13”. But the badlands topography has inherent extremes. South-facing slopes are sunbaked, with little vegetation. Nevertheless, some birds have found advantages in this setting: prairie falcons, golden eagles, and turkey vultures select nesting sites on sandstone ledges or in cavities. In contrast, the north facing slopes, retaining more moisture, maintain dense groves of Rocky Mountain juniper and ponderosa pine.
During warm months, over 150 species of wildflowers mix with grasses and shrubs. Sagebrush lizards and bull snakes are less visible residents. Down in the draws, snowberry, wild plum, and chokecherry find more moisture and in turn provide needed cover for animals and nesting birds. Early morning or evening hours provide the best photographic opportunities of badlands scenes and inhabitants.
And with the Visitor Center…
You can take a self-guided tour that chronicles 74 million years of Eastern Montana history through the educational, interpretive and interactive displays. The tour is highlighted with fossils and artifacts like invertebrates of early sea life, a triceratops skull, and stone tools used by early man.
Makoshika State Park is open for day use, recreation and camping 365 days each year. The Visitor Center is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day from Memorial Day through Labor Day and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Sundays, Labor Day to Memorial Day.
Makoshika is an island in time-a vantage point from which to look back millions of years, to imagine a vastly different environment right here, to ponder the extinction of the dinosaurs, to contemplate the development of mammals, the change of climates, the creation of these badlands, and man’s place in all of this.
Part of man’s history here was the establishment of this area as a state park. Makoshika is a preserve of 8,832 acres—a place for recreation, education, escape from the everyday, and reflection. Your participation in preserving this special place is needed. All natural things are protected here. Please leave fossil remains in place, and report significant discoveries to a Department employee so that a professional team can be sent to study and preserve them. Please visit with care so that future generations of all living things will be enriched by the experience of Makoshika.
Included within the park are archery and shooting ranges as well as scenic drives and nature trails, a campground with 8 sites, a group picnic area, and many picnic sites. The largest of Montana’s State Parks encompasses 8,834 acres at an elevation of 2,374 feet. The park offers a visitors center, both flush and vault toilets, a public phone, grills/fire rings, picnic tables, trash cans, drinking water, interpretive displays, and special events throughout the summer.
Camping is allowed in designated areas only. All boats, trailers, rigs and motorized vehicles must fit entirely within the campsite parking-spur provided. Any equipment that does not fit entirely within the campsite parking-spur must be parked outside the campground in an area designated by the park manager. If no outside parking is available, a second campsite must be purchased.
Check-in time is 2:00pm for campsites and 3:00pm for yurts, cabins and tipis's (local time).
Check-out time is 1:00pm for campsites and 12:00pm for yurts, cabins, and tipis (local park time). Late checkouts may incur additional fees unless prior arrangements have been made with park staff.
The maximum capacity at each individually signed or numbered campsite is eight (8) people. This typically involves a single camping unit, which includes, but is not limited to, a tent, motor home, camping bus, truck mounted camper shell, pull-type camper, or other device designed and commonly used for sleeping. In the event the site is designated as Double Site, the site capacity for that site is doubled to allow for sixteen (16) people and two camping units.
Campfires are allowed in designated areas only!
Reprinted from park brochure