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Natural Areas of North Dakota

Burning Coal Vein

GIF--Location of Natural Area

by

John Hanson


Directions: From Amidon, 15 miles west and north (follow signs).

Burning Coal Vein is a badlands landscape still in the making. The fire smoldering in the coal layer several feet underground was burning when viewed by the first white settlers in the area over a hundred years ago. Burning Coal Vein has since become part of a Little Missouri National Grasslands natural area with adjoining campground. The underground fire is less active in recent years, but local landscape features and columnar Rocky Mountain juniper (cedar) bear witness to it.

JPG--Columnar Junipers

The underground fire may have started by lightning or prairie fire. Lack of oxygen slows the burning rate to a creeping 10 feet or so each year and predictions have varied as to when it might extinguish.

When the coal is reduced to ash, the clay above it cracks and falls into the fire pit, hence the "stairstep" appearance in the sloping setting. The cracks admit oxygen and exit hot fumes.

Downwind from the Burning Coal Vein and its fumes are found columnar junipers. They are a tall, narrow, column-like shape of Rocky Mountain juniper, whose unusual form is caused by the gas fumes.

Underground fires baked the clay above into brick-like "scoria." The red coloration on many badlands buttes is scoria, as is the surfacing for many local roads.

Facilities: The U.S. Forest Service maintains a non-fee campground which features sheltered tables, grills, and gravel pads. A roadside overlook is situated above the burning coal vein, and a foot trail winds its way among the sandstone outcrops above the columnar jumpers.

Administration and Contact: The U.S. Forest Service can be contacted by writing: Little Missouri National Grasslands, Rt. 6, Box 131B, Dickinson, ND 58601.

JOHN HANSON is owner of the Logging Camp Ranch located close to the Burning Coal Vein north of Amidon, N.D.


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