Many prominent and peculiar geographies are spiritual places to Indian people and important landmarks in the nation’s history. They dominate the landscape and our memories with their fascinating mineral composition and geological histories. Fortunately, many of these unique sites are also Montana State Parks.
Perhaps the driest and starkest park is Makoshika State Park near Glendive. The name means "bad land" or "badland" in Sioux. Makoshika State Park is a land of colored spires, deep cuts, and long, sharp meandering ridges.
The clays and sandstones of Makoshika were originally set down by the actions of an inland sea with shores that extended from Texas to Canada 100 to 200 million years ago. As the sea receded, vegetation grew.
Then, a couple of thousand years ago—in relatively recent geologic time, an intense fire is thought to have sterilized the soil. The fire eliminated the plant communities and prevented vegetation from returning to hold the soft sandstones and clays in place. Once denuded, rampant erosion washed poorly consolidated sediments into the low lands, leaving behind the earthen castles and fantastic towers of today's Makoshika State Park.
These tower features of Makoshika rest on other ancient geologic layers. One assemblage, the Cedar Creek “anticline,” is a long arch of sediments that extends southeast from Glendive into South Dakota.
Uplifted perhaps 50 million years ago by the push of natural movements deep within the earth, the large Cedar Creek arch is no longer visible because erosion has removed its top. However, as this huge fold of land bulged upward it created a structural trap deep below that holds some of this state’s most productive oil reservoirs. The oil is in the layers of earth where the earliest—or Paleozoic—organic materials decayed under great pressure and warmth 600 million to 210 million years ago.
Another mystery of the Makoshika area is why today’s sparsely vegetated badlands of Makoshika State Park yield bones of Mesozoic fish, alligators, crocodiles, a Tyrannosaurus rex, as well as fossilized imprints of leaves from trees and other plants. Some of these fossil finds may be seen at Glendive’s Frontier Gateway Museum.
The reason is that about 210 to 65 million years ago, during the Mesozoic era, the lands of eastern Montana were covered with a lush sub-tropical savannah bordering a shallow, inland extension of the Gulf of Mexico. This ancient swampland-tidal pool environment, similar to the coastal plains of Florida and Louisiana today, accounts for the fossilized alligators and sub-tropical plants.
Makoshika has attracted visitors for thousands of years. Indian bands were drawn by the eerie landforms and perhaps to collect plants and mineral paints on the multihued hillsides. Remains of campsites in the canyons and lookouts or spiritual-quest sites on the ridges are located throughout the park.
Indian stories indicate that the tribes occasionally found large and unusual dinosaur bones eroding from the hillsides. As members of a hunting culture, Native people butchered animals of all sizes and possessed an intimate knowledge of anatomy. Imagine their awe and suppositions as they uncovered the bones of ancient creatures found nowhere in their present day surroundings.
Makoshika remains a place of imagination and supposition even to this day. The tremendous transformations from tropical swamplands to near-Siberian badlands are exposed for all to enjoy at this unique State Park.