I crossed off another item on my North Dakota Bucket List last weekend. With Lillian, her two sisters and her daughter, I hiked to the top of Black Butte, and, at the top, promptly declared, to the amusement of the ladies, that I was the oldest person ever to climb to North Dakota’s second-highest point. Well, there was no one there to challenge that, so unless I see proof from some old geezer that it’s not true, that’s the way it will stand.
It was a hard hike, about 5 ½ miles in total, and it probably would have been easier if I wasn’t in my 70th summer, wasn’t carrying 30 too many pounds around my midsection, and didn’t have a bad back and a gouty toe. But it’s not a day I’d have traded for any other I’ve had.
Three words describe Black Butte. Magnificent. Unfriendly. Cruel.
Magnificent because it is the only one of our big buttes that stands like a fortress when viewed from every direction, with sheer rock walls ascending from about halfway up the butte to the top. Black rock, hence its name.
Unfriendly because many of those rocks have crumbled down the sides of the butte, making walking very difficult. Of all the big buttes in North Dakota I’ve climbed—Sentinel, Pretty, Square, Rocky, and the king of them all, Bullion—this was the hardest hike. Not because it is the biggest butte, or the steepest, but because the rocks are like a minefield, literally inches or a couple feet apart, and you have to pick your way through them carefully so you don’t break an ankle or wrench a knee. It’s just not a pleasant hike like most of the other major buttes offer. It’s unfriendly.
Cruel because of two things:
- It’s a long hike from where you have to park your car, most of a mile away, and then you have to weave your way between wheat fields and hay meadows before you begin any semblance of ascent. That’s okay when you are heading toward the butte, because you can look up in anticipation, and it really is a marvelous landscape to look at, both from a distance and up close as you approach the base. But that mile back to the car after your descent, when you just want to be done with it after a long day on the summit, is cruel.
- The elevation changes atop the butte are severe. Unlike the flat tops of Sentinel and Bullion and Square Buttes, offering a generally leisurely stroll along the ridge crest, Black Butte is topped by hills and gullies, and there’s no great ridgeline walk on this butte. It lends itself to wandering around from side to side, to see the view in each direction, but the landscape calls for escape, not relaxation, after an hour or so atop the butte. That’s cruel.
Otherwise, it’s a great way to spend a day. It’s probably the only place from which you can see both White Butte and Bullion Butte. Black Butte was thought to be the highest point in North Dakota until the U.S. Geological Survey declared in 1962 that White Butte is 40 feet higher. Bullion ranks 3rd or 4th. You can also see Pretty Butte, north of Marmarth, and the Rainy Buttes, south of New England, from there.
My wife Lillian, has written a great blog and posted wonderful photos of our day. I’m going to let her tell the rest of the story. Here’s the link.