The Lakota Sioux stayed away from what is now Makoshika State Park, calling it “land of bad spirits” because of the shifting soil and massive horned skulls poking out of the rocks.
Now 60,000 visitors come every year to look at the dinosaur fossils and to take in the sun-drenched canyons and finger-like mesas that make this land look like it’s on another planet.
Imagine wandering through the arid badlands of Eastern Montana hundreds of years ago, before paleontologists came up with names for the fossilized beasts buried in the soil.
The only wildlife there now are small game and rattlesnakes. But 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, dinosaurs thrived in the subtropical climate of the area.
Moby Dick and the Goblins
Some of the rocks bear descriptive names like Moby Dick, a long, rounded, whale-like form near Valley View Loop, or the Choirboys or Goblins, two names for the tall, human-like rock formations near the ampitheater.
The Hell Creek Formation within Makoshika, just south of Glendive, captures history’s transition from dinosaurs to mammals. Ten species of dinosaurs have been discovered in Makoshika, most notably the Triceratops, whose fossilized skull is on display in the Makoshika visitor’s center, and the Tyrannosaurus rex. Visitors often find fossils that, while tempting, cannot be taken from the park.
At 11,538 acres, Makoshika is the largest of Montana’s 56 state parks, and there are many opportunities
for solitude. That was part of the lure for Luke Shelton, who was born in South Korea and adopted by a couple from Modesto, Calif., where he grew up. Shelton is working this summer at Makoshika and loving Montana so much he transferred to Montana State University Billings to finish his degree in communications.
“If this park was in California, it would be as busy as Disneyland,” Shelton said.
Turn left at birdbath
Makoshika sits at the end of Snyder Street in Glendive. One minute, you’re driving through neighborhoods with manicured lawns and concrete birdbaths, and the next you’re in an eerie land of columns rising 25 feet out of the clay, casting shadows across the gullies.
Walking or driving through Makoshika, the effects of erosion on the landscape are apparent. The wind carves the stone into shapes not unlike the dinosaurs that once roamed here. This contrasts with the thigh-high honey clover and ponderosa pine and juniper, making for some shaded, sweet-smelling trails.
“My favorite trail is Kinney Coulee,” said Makoshika park manager Nate Powell. “You start in the pine trees, go through the badlands and end up in the pine trees again. The ecology just changes as you go through.”
The Kinney Coulee Trail is a half-mile long and descends 300 feet to the bottom of the coulee.
The clay and shale of the lower sedimentary layers erode easier than the sandstone layers, and when the softer material erodes away, caprocks of sandstone are left to teeter over the spires. It gives the area an otherworldly appearance.
Some of the most impressive capstone rocks are near the amphitheater, where weddings are often held and Shakespeare in the Parks performed “Romeo and Juliet” in early July.
“My parents got married there,” said Glendive resident Meg Geiger. “My dad, Sam, parachuted in 25 years ago for the ceremony with his groomsmen.”
Geiger said one of her favorite hikes is the half-mile Cap Rock Nature Trail because it leads hikers along a natural bridge made of stone. Locals from the Glendive area comprise about 50 percent of the 60,000 visitors who came to the park in 2013.
The community began advocating for Makoshika to become a park as early as 1893, but it wasn’t until 1953 that it became a state park. In 1939 the federal government built the main road into the park as a response to Montana Gov. Frank Cooney’s request to designate Makoshika a national park.
“Our numbers continue to increase every year. The word is getting out,” Powell said. “I’ve talked with visitors here from all over the world.”
Increased visitation may be the result of the attention Makoshkia has been getting from national media. CNN named the park’s towering Cap Rock one of the Top 10 rock formations in the U.S. In June, Country Magazine heralded Maskoshika as one of the Top 10 Hidden Gems among parks across the country.
Harvey Meidinger and his wife, Darleen, who have lived in Glendive since 1955, come to the park often throughout the year. The park has 11 miles of road, some of which are paved and other portions of which are gravel and closed during the winter.
“You appreciate things here. You have to look into this land to discover things. You can’t be impatient,” Harvey said. “You could be here 100 years and go out and see something different in it.”
Buzz about buzzards
Makoshika celebrates two things — dinosaurs and buzzards.
The number of turkey vultures in the park has declined in recent years from its peak of 60 to the 30 vultures who are in the park this spring and summer. Park ranger Tom Shoush said a large rookery blew down in recent years, and it’s led to a decline in the population. More than half of Montana’s bird species are found in Makoshika, including mountain bluebirds, but the local favorite is the vulture.
“Turkey vultures are one of nature’s cleaners. They take care of dead animals and are an important part of the biological cycle,” Shoush said. “When you see them, you know that winter is over. They are like a mascot to us.”
Makoshika honors the return of the buzzard with the annual Buzzard Days road race and other events the second week of June. The buzzards migrate in the fall and return to lay their eggs on the exposed sandstone ledges in the park. The nestlings have hatched and are halfway to fledgling now, Shoush said.
Spring and summer have been good to Makoshika, bringing more than the usual amount of rainfall and increased visitors and campers to the four designated camping areas. The 18-hole disc golf course has also been popular this spring.
Visitors who spend a full day or two in the park can experience how the changing light affects the colorful shades of the rock in early morning or the evening. Shoush warns of driving or walking in the park when it rains because the clay turns to sticky gumbo.
The Lakota may have feared this land, but for visitors today, Makoshika is a place of wonder and beauty with vistas changing with the light and the seasons.