Badlands Petrified Gardens- South Dakota

I have a deep fondness for roadside museums and historical societies. Coleman (as in stove) museum in Kansas? Been there. Logging museum in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? Done that. Cheese making museum in Chester Illinois? Totally been there. Alien museum on Roswell New Mexico?  Ohhhhh yeah!  Yup! Also, anything that claims to be the world’s largest anything… I LOVE that stuff! World’s Largest Cap Gun in Kansas City Missouri? Check! If they have a penny smasher, that’s double the awesome! Why do I love these things? Emic verses etic. What does that mean, you ask?


Etic is the outsider perspective; the item, object or culture removed from its natural environment, moved to a sterile, academic institution where an outsider tells you what it is. Emic is an inside perspective, the insiders showing you their things rather than an outsider showing you their interpretation of another’s things. There is a difference.


Roadside museums and attractions are most often from the emic perspective; things are from the perspective of the people that used or lived in the area.   There are definitely things to learn from both perspectives, but I like the organic nature of the non-academic places, even when they make me roll my eyes at blatantly sexist or racist content.
You also see things that you have never seen before and may never see again. You get regional diversity, regional social culture, and regional material culture. I find that super fascinating. The material culture you find in Chester Illinois is completely different than you would find in New Mexico.


I recall a historical museum in a super tiny town somewhere in Illinois that was in a very small historic church. There was a wicker casket hanging from the ceiling. I was so perplexed as to why they would have a wicker casket, and why it was hanging from the ceiling. Turns out that during summer months, the wicker casket was used (by everyone; they had a child, and infant sized one, too) while the body was in the ice house until the funeral. The wake, viewing; all of that was in the town’s wicker casket, and the deceased wasn’t transferred to a real coffin until the graveside.  When not in use, it hung from the ceiling of the church for storage.


I would NEVER, EVER have known that had I not stopped at that place. That isn’t the sort of minutia that gets recorded by history, texts, academia, or official records. That is the sort of information that comes from the emic, and the value of roadside attractions. Well that and they often have just mind-blowing collections of things you can’t/don’t see in regular museums.


As we were driving through the Black Hills, (this is also why I love road trips- sure, flying is faster, but you can’t just stop and goof off whenever you want!) I confess I was sleeping at the time, when my husband saw the sign for the “Badlands Petrified Gardens” and decided it was a good time to get off the highway and walk around a little bit.   We then spent almost 3 hours there!


I am from the land of fossils… Cambrian Paleozoic marine fossils, to be specific. My mental image of a fossil is very different than that of someone from Nebraska, South Dakota, or Utah. To me, fossils are ammonites, snails, bivalves, crinoids, etc.  I used to find so many crinoid sections washed out of limestone matrix that I used them as beads on necklaces. So very common here.  The plants that are preserved in my stomping grounds are in the form of coal.
What had never crossed my mind, was fossilized plants. I had a nebulous idea that petrified wood existed, but had only, seen small pieces that had been polished into jewelry.  Petrified Gardens?  What does THAT mean?


The entrance fee was a very reasonable $5 per person, and the entry way was a very satisfying geology show; ores, fluorescence, various samples of minerals. I loved it. I have been a  rock hound since I was a child. You wind your way through the exhibits and then finally to a door that leads outside.  That was when my mind was blown. POW!!!  Petrified wood became a wholly new entity for me at that moment.

They were trees… that were stone… stone trees. This was my brain: DOES NOT COMPUTE. ERROR. ERROR. DOES NOT COMPUTE. Bark, limbs, knot holes, insect damage, rings… all present, just turned to stone. With lichens growing on them. Brain could not handle contradiction.

So petrified wood basically means tree fossils. It seems super obvious in retrospect, but at the time I felt like Jack Skellington in Christmas Town. These were not the tiny bits of polished peices in jewelry I was seeing; it was whole logs, tree trunks; the remains of a forest.

See what I’m saying? It’s a log. It’s a rock. It’s an enigma. I was geeking out. The intricate details that were preserved was just amazing. I was particularly fascinated by the surface texture of the wood, the grain patterns and the remains of growth rings.

Then there was this piece that had a pile if ashes in the crook when it fossilized. If it were charred black in color, it might look like the remains of a backyard bonfire.

I’ve seen coal fossils of ferns, palms and the like in the Illinois State Museum, but that is so different. Those remains are friable, and more of impressions than the actual remains. I was walking through the remains if a millions year old forest.

Growth rings anyone? It looked like a cedar to me. Many of the trees no longer had bark, but this one has a little at the base of it. So many examples of growth rings. You can tell it was a relatively mild climate with little temperature variation between seasons by the thinness of the rings. Seeing a stone tree with lichens growing on it amazed me.

I liked this tree not only because you could see great tree ring detail, but in the upper left, you can also see grain pattern. Other than being stone, this might be any log in the woods.

Then there was this thing. I’ve seen that pattern before. I’ve bought firewood riddled with beetle grubs that do that. Apparently, not much has changed on that front in millions of years.

There is no question this is a tree. It also happens to be a rock. How anyone can see things like this and deny science, deny the millions of years our tiny little rock has orbited the sun, deny even that the world is round… Those people baffle me. I feel like they need serious psychiatric help.

This almost looked like it had been growing on that very spot! It hadn’t, but the resemblance is uncanny with the roots still attached. I would like to say that was my favorite piece, but the whole place is kind of my favorite.

I could not get enough close up growth ring shots. It was amazing, and seemed impossible, and yet here it was.
After wandering through the outside yard taking multiple photos of everything (I spared you most of those photos) we decided to head back inside the museum to wind our way through the fossil rooms. Wow.

That is what a fossilized tree looks like if you polish it. Doesn’t look all that different than a piece of finished wood. So many of the trees can be identified down to species level, if not genera because the preservation is so good. It was amazing!

Least you think that ALL they had was fossilized trees… this sits outside of some of the richest dinosaur fossil beds in North America. You want dinosaurs? They have dinosaurs. By the ton. Literally.

Bones, eggs, tracks, fossilized water ripples, mineral samples. It was a one stop academic freak out. I am never going to be able to look at the marine fossils in my home karst the same, ever again.

We don’t get these back home. They are super common in the Badlands. The museum guide said they are one of the most common animals found. They were about the size of a cow, and roamed in the millions. Kind of like antelope today.
I’m an anthropologist. My interest had always been in people and their material culture. This place really made me want to walk on the darkside of paleontology. I still feel the draw. I keep thinking a PhD in paleontology would be an excellent idea just so I have an excuse to go dig up dinosaurs. It blows my mind that there are places in our country where there are more dinosaur fossils than people.
If you want to go on an adventure, and love geology and or paleontology, I cannot recommend the Badlands enough. Definitely stop at the Badlands Petrified Gardens. They have an amazing collection of fossils. I loved the place. I *WILL* be going back!




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