North Dakota is very sparsely populated. The first two thirds of it is also relatively boring; I spent the drive wondering what was the big deal about the Badlands (which I’ll get to in a minute). However! North Dakota has a lot of fossils. Every kid goes through a dinosaur phase, but mine actually was one reason I briefly considered majoring in genetics (and slogged through Michael Crichton’s writing–Jurassic Park is a thriller but God, is it dense and meandering). So I hit up the fossil collections at the North Dakota Heritage Center (in the capital, Bismarck, and totally free!) and at the Dakota Dinosaur Museum (in Dickinson). The Heritage Center displays were actually pretty creative, as they tried to stage the skeletons with scenery props to help you picture the living thing. I also note, for entropyenator, that North Dakota is apparently rich with fossils of vicious prehistoric cats (which were probably fuzzy and cute behind the saber teeth).
The Dakota Dinosaur Museum was a bit pokey in comparison, but they also have a neat mineral collection, and a really startling fossilized crab that looks like it’s lunging out of the rock at you.
Once I got past Dickinson, the endlessly undulating pasture began to get hilly in idiosyncratic ways, with weird lumps and bulges and random buttes popping up. And then the bulges got steep and high enough to show erosion on the sides, and then I understood what people talk about when they talk about the badlands. It’s beautiful and it’s also otherworldly: the greenness of the grass makes you think flat plains, or maybe gentle hills, but then the landscape is constantly behaving in ways that defy that expectation. You get sharply concave curves unexpectedly leveling off, and every so often you get a side of many-striped red-yellow-brown rock embedded in all the green.
I turned off the interstate at Medora, a town that seems to be built entirely as a Western movie set, to check out Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Even the post office has a log cabin look to it. Not sure I’m into that. Medora did have huckleberry ice cream, which tastes something like a sweeter blueberry.
The TRNP scenic drive is quite pretty, although I understand most of the best views require some hiking to get to. And there’s definitely wildlife: the drive itself goes through several prairie dog towns, with the little rodents not terribly afraid of cars, and a few bison were randomly posing by the roadside (they held still for multiple shots, though I was sensible and stayed in the car to take them). I even spotted some wild horses.
Roadtrip note: You can drive 75 mph but the road conditions make it difficult to keep up at that speed unless you’re driving a truck or a Jeep.