At this point in the earth's history, the most spectacular wonders of geology in the United States are found in the West. For the last 500 million years, dynamic forces have been staging geologic dramas from Sedona to Seattle.
Here in the West, oceanic plates smashed into the continent with enough force to create the Rocky Mountains and the volcanic Cascade Range. A massive wall of water crashed from Idaho to the ocean, mountains blew their tops, seas of lava swallowed up the land. Surreal sandstone sculptures that seem to defy ordinary explanation, canyons so deep they boggle the mind, and columns of rock that bear all the hallmarks of skilled craftsmanship have all been left behind for us to ogle in wonder. Here's where to see the best geological wonders in the West.
Badlands, Makoshika State Park, Montana
Wherever crumbly sedimentary rock has been exposed to a few million years of weather, you're going to find some rough land. But the terrain at 11,500-acre Makoshika State Park in eastern Montana is extreme by any standards: chunks of orange sandstone teetering on thin white stalks, skeletal gray ridges, tortuous gullies, and near vertical canyon walls. Makoshika means "Land of Bad Spirits" in Sioux, a fair reflection of the land.
The nearby Yellowstone River long ago washed away the top layer of soil, uncovering rocks significantly older than badlands specimens from the Dakotas. The lower strata of brown and gray clay and shale date from the time of the dinosaurs, which explains the abundant fossils—including remains of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops—discovered at the park. The upper layer, a younger, denser sandstone in shades of yellow and orange, erodes more slowly than the older rock below, an imbalance that gives the sculptured scenery a peculiar character shown in the caprock formation called Twin Sisters.
Drive to Artist Vista or the Sand Creek Overlook for memorable views of this weathered landscape.