Nature / Travel / USA

Wind and Water: The Unrelenting Sculptors


“The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools,
but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure 
with a liberal allowance of time.”
— Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau probably never visited North Dakota, but these strangely artistic spires in Theodore Roosevelt National Park prove his point perfectly. Sixty-five million years ago, right after the lights went out for the dinosaurs, thick layers of sand, silt, and mud were deposited on the flanks of the rising Rocky Mountains. Since that time, rain and wind have been slowly whittling away at these rocks leaving these precarious pillars.

Rain is rare in North Dakota’s Badlands, but when it happens it can be intense. And without vegetation to buffer the torrential hammering, the water and wind have their way with the exposed stone. Leave the destructive siblings at play for millions of years, and nature struts her artistic stuff.

Geologists call this process “differential erosion” because the sandstone in the cap rock is harder and erodes at a slower rate than the softer clay beneath. The result is these strangely shaped monoliths standing in a stark, Daliesque landscape. And carrying on the cowboy tradition of wacky names, in the American West they’re called “hoodoos.”

In addition to the Badlands, Utah’s Arches National Park hasn’t missed out on the fun …


… nor has Bryce Canyon National Park.


But America isn’t the only place that travelers can see surreal rockscapes. There are other famous locations around the world. We saw colorfully layered examples in Petra.

IMG_4033 - Version 3

And the “fairy chimneys” at Cappadocia, in Central Turkey entice intrepid travelers from all over the globe.

Hoodoos aren’t common because it takes a number of special conditions for their formation, and they’re just as fragile as they look. But when nature pulls it all together, the results are spectacular.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. And BTW,  did you know that the Chinese term feng shui, literally translated means “water and wind?”


Photo Credits:
5. Cedric Gouyvenoux via Wikimedia Commons
6. Luca Galuzzi via Wikimedia Commons
8, 9. Michael Day via Wikimedia Commons

17 thoughts on “Wind and Water: The Unrelenting Sculptors

    • Thanks Yvette. I was surprised by the feng shui meaning as well. In the west, I’ve most often seen it used as a design term meaning a propitious arrangement of things – not sure how we got there from “wind and water,” but there you go. As for hoodoo, it’s just one of those words that’s fun to say. 🙂 ~James

    • Jo, we were glad that the weather cooperated on this hike. The clear, blue skies were the perfect backdrop for these weird, wonderful hoodoos. And I wish you a fun week as well. Tomorrow is election day here so there promises to be lots of fireworks. Hopefully they’re the color we prefer. 🙂 ~James

    • Laura, I googled the hoodoos in Escalante and they’re fabulous. The contrasting colors are wonderful, and I need to do a bit of research on the geology. Rocks that are that white are rare. Did you do get some of your usual excellent photos? ~James

  1. As I started reading this blog post, I immediately thought of Petra. Then you mentioned about it. Seeing how eroded some carvings and sculptures in the Rose City are, I kind of wished that there were a time machine so we could travel back in time to see Petra in its former glory. It must have been a magnificent place that would impress anyone visiting the city.

    • I agree Bama. Most of the carved stone at Petra is sandstone, which in relatively soft. Luckily for the sculptors, this made it easy to carve into fantastic details. But the downside of this softness is that the rock weathers quickly. But you’re right, it must have been something to see in the original. ~James

  2. Always among my favorites, James. Wandering the Southwest, as Peggy and I are now, we get plenty of opportunities to see the effects of wind, rain, and freezing temperatures. You have to love hoodoos! –Curt

    • Curt, I didn’t mention the action and power of thawing and freezing water, which frequently starts this whole process. But it’s a weathering warrior in places like Arches NP. Here in KY, a drive through the roadcuts on the interstate is a good demonstration of water’s impact on massive rock formations. I hope your trip is going well. ~James

  3. I always love your geology posts, James. My first encounter with hoodoos was at Chiricahua, while an undergrad at ASU. They may not be very common, but they sure are photogenic and memorable. Last year, we had the chance to hike another rhyolitic hoodoo site at the Tent Rocks outside Santa Fe. It was more geomorphic magic!

    • Thanks Joe. At least I know there’s one person out there who appreciates a bit of geology. Maybe together we could force-feed earth science to the blogsphere. 🙂

      Unfortunately, I missed the Tent Rocks on our visit to Santa Fe. There’s so much to see in that part of the world that I had to prioritize. It looks very cool though. One of the cool things about the hoodoos in Roosevelt is with easy access and their human scale, I could walk right up to the hoodoos for a good close look. Also, this area has some pretty cool petrified logs. If you haven’t been, it’s a great stop. ~James

  4. Thanks for the info, James. Exploring areas of geologic interest are one of my favorite parts of world travel. We have been talking about making a trip to the Black Hills area, and Roosevelt NP would be a worthy and interesting side trip.

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