Little Missouri National Grassland - North Dakota Scenic Drives

This is an automobile tour designed to explore and enjoy the beauty of the southern portion of the Little Missouri National Grassland--1 million acres of public land--administered by the U.S. Forest Service. The tour originates and ends in Medora, North Dakota.

The community of Medora is adjacent to the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is a major tourist attraction in western North Dakota featuring Old West celebrations, shopping, parades, camping, rodeo and ranching activities, mini-golf, tennis, trail rides, multi-media shows, sight-seeing, museums, wildlife, hunting, picnic facilities, wilderness areas, hiking, backpacking, canoeing, river floating, biking, swimming, dancing, a variety of family attractions, with fine motels, good food, and a selection of entertainment for young and old. A new major community facility provides a gymnasium, kitchen, meeting rooms, and multi-media theater for meetings and conventions, large and small.

The self-guided auto tour is approximately 58 miles and time required to make the trip is three to four hours. It is recommended that you take water or liquid to drink, food for a snack, also a camera and binoculars, if available. To maximize the opportunity of viewing wildlife, it is suggested that the trip be made in early morning or late afternoon. These are the periods when wildlife is most active. The areas of interest are identified by numbered posts and directions to these locations are indicated by an arrow on a post. A map of the route and surrounding area is included with tour information.

Site One

8.8 miles from the visitor center of the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.As you proceed south from Medora on the East River Road you may have an opportunity to observe bighorn sheep and other wildlife species adjacent to the road during the first four to five miles.

The first site offers a view of the Little Missouri River and the vegetation associated with riverbottom habitat. The trees are cottonwood. The habitat associated with running water (riparian habitat) is some of the most productive and provides a home for creatures such as the white-tailed deer, red-headed woodpecker, flicker, and killdeer.

Site Two

5.9 miles from Site One. Site Two offers a view of wooded draws and juniper hillsides. These areas of cover provide habitat for a variety of species such as mule deer, turkey, sharp-tailed grouse, mourning dove, and rufous-sided towhee. This important habitat occupies only about five percent of the total area of the grasslands.

Site Three

2.7 miles from Site Two. Site Three is a sharp-tailed grouse dancing ground (lek) located on the small knoll on the east side of the road. These areas, which may be occupied from the latter part of March through mid-May, are used for the mating rituals of this grouse species. The birds normally occupy them in early morning or late evening with the greatest activity occurring from daybreak to sunrise. Observers should remain in their vehicles and be as quiet as possible. The grouse will usually squat down close to the ground as they sense danger, then if it is quiet, they will continue with their dancing and this may be observed from the automobile.

To continue the tour, you must turn around and return to the Moody Plateau intersection and road near Site Two.

Site Four

3.7 miles from Site Three. This general area is known as Moody Plateau. A wide variety of wildlife may be seen or heard from this site. Moody Plateau supports one of the largest bighorn sheep herds in the grasslands. The Audubon bighorn sheep historically was a common species in the badlands of North Dakota along the Missouri and Little Missouri rivers. Homesteading and settlement of the badlands along with hunting pressure decimated the population by the late 1800s. In 1905, the last remaining Audubon bighorn sheep in North Dakota was killed near the mouth of Magpie Creek in southern McKenzie County.

In 1956, bighorn sheep were reintroduced in North Dakota. Eighteen California bighorn sheep were transplanted from British Columbia, Canada, to the North Dakota badlands. They now occupy nine areas in the badlands and breaks along the Little Missouri River and number 200-250 animals.

Other common wildlife on the plateau include mule deer, antelope, sharp-tailed grouse, prairie falcon, meadowlark (state bird of North Dakota), and horned lark. As you view the terrain from this site. the large butte to the southwest is Bullion Butte. Bullion Butte and other prominent sandstone buttes in southwestern North Dakota are more than 60 million years old.

Site Five

9.7 miles from Site Four. As you travel the first six miles you will be passing through private cattle ranches. Cattle raised on these ranches graze part of the year on adjacent national grassland pastures which are shared by native wildlife species such as antelope.

A golden eagle tree nest, is 1.7 miles from the main road down Davis Creek toward Initial Rock (Site Six). The golden eagle nests in trees or on clay knobs or sandstone cliffs in the badlands of western North Dakota. They build a large stick nest, lay two or three eggs, and often raise one or two young. The young are normally hatched during April or early May and fledge (leave the nest) by the middle of July. Golden eagles usually have two or more alternate nest sites.

Site Six

6 miles from Site Five. General Custer's men of the 7th Cavalry Regiment camped here May 28, 1876, enroute to the Battle of the Little Big-horn. Custer traveled through the badlands in pursuit of the Sioux in 1876. The Custer Trail was a passage used earlier by Generals Sully and Crook, as well as emigrants and goldseekers, on their way to the Yellowstone Valley. Custer's three camps are marked along the way, and at one camp on the evening of May 28, 1876 the initials of two of the privates were carved on a sandstone boulder now known as Initial Rock. This was Custer's one-way route to his demise at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. W.C. Williams, Company H, and K Neely. Company M, who left their initials in the sandstone rock, were with the expedition. To continue the tour, you must turn around and return to the main road.

Site Seven

4.9 miles from Site Six. From this point, a number of scoria (red) knobs may be observed. It is erroneously called scoria because of its resemblance to true scoria, a rock of volcanic origin. According to the Guide to the Geology of Southwestern North Dakota, the reddish layers of scoria, found in many parts of southwestern North Dakota, are composed of sediment that was baked by burning lignite coal. The scoria commonly contains fragments that look as though they have melted. One theory is these fragments were formed when the material overlying a burning coal bed collapsed, plunging it into the "furnace," and heating it to exceptionally high temperatures so that it melted. As a result of such collapsing. spaces are often present in or near beds of scoria. After the scoria cools, the spaces are convenient places in which animals can live. They are especially favored by rattlesnakes for dens. The guide further states that the intensity of the reddish color of scoria is governed by the mineral composition and grain size of the material that was baked and by the intensity of the temperature reached during the baking process. The reddish color is due primarily to the presence of the mineral hematite (iron oxide).

Site Eight

8.3 miles from Site Seven. As you travel through this area, most of the adjacent land is in private ownership. Crops such as wheat and alfalfa hay are raised. These crops provide food and cover for creatures such as the ring-necked pheasant, gray partridge, whitetailed jack rabbit, and marsh hawk or northern harrier. The northern harrier can be readily identified, as it glides close to the ground, by the white rump patch. It nests on the ground, often in a clump of snowberry bushes.

Provides a view of a portion of the Fryburg Oil Field. Drilling began in 1954 in the Fryburg and adjacent Medora field. Oil and gas are the remains of living matter that has been reduced by decay to a state in which carbon and hydrogen are the principal elements. These elements are combined in a great number of ways to form molecules of hydrocarbons. Both oil and gas are composed of molecules of hydrocarbons. North Dakota's oil and gas reserves began to accumulate millions of years ago when decaying organic material was covered by sediments deposited in the large, shallow sea that covered western North Dakota. Over millions of years, hydrocarbons from this organic material flowed into relatively porous and permeable reservoir rocks. The hydrocarbons became concentrated when the permeable sediment layers were covered by impermeable layers of sediment that formed traps where the hydrocarbons accumulated.

Along this road on the way to Site Ten, you will see a number of petrified wood stumps. These "rock-hard" stumps are remnants from a prehistoric time when North Dakota was an extensive forest of sequoia trees.

Site Nine

1.9 miles from Site Eight. This is a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs. Prairie dog colonies provide habitat for the endangered black-footed ferret. Often the burrows are used as nest sites by the burrowing owl, prairie rattlesnake, or cottontail rabbit. Other wildlife which may be observed in or around a prairie dog colony include badger, coyote, long-tailed weasel, and horned lark, a ground nesting species.

Site Ten

4.8 miles from Site Nine. This is a golden eagle cliff nest. It is located underneath an over-hanging slab of sandstone on the cliffs to the north of the site. It is visible with the naked eye but with binoculars you will be able to view the nest more easily and may be able to view the young or one of the adults.

This is the last site on this tour. We hope you have had an interesting and enjoyable trip! It is 6.3 miles to Medora.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 25 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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