Almost a year on the Western Edge — far from deciduous forests in my homeland of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — hiking in North Dakota seemed slim pickings unless you venture to the Badlands. That is until White Butte and her majestic claim to fame came across the radar.
As the highest natural point in the state of North Dakota, White Butte sits at a 3,506-foot incline. Located in Slope County about an hour's drive south of Dickinson, the journey to hike White Butte is a scenic route that takes you into the heartland of agriculture. At 7 a.m. on a smoggy Monday morning, I ventured down US-85 South on the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway.
About White Butte
Residing on private property, White Butte is owned by the Dennis family who live nearby. Hopping off the exit into Belfield, rolling landscapes of wheat, barley and corn paint the foreground. Turning off onto 140th Avenue Southwest, the small-town atmosphere comes to life as farmers baling their hay wave to oncoming travelers.
Following the GPS tracker, the road leads all the way up to White Butte — with a convenient spot to park your vehicle. Before entering the premises, be wary of the terrain. Though my morning hike didn’t come across any rattling, a sign at the gate prepares you for the possibility of rattlesnakes.
Overall, White Butte has a lined out trail that is open year-round and easy to follow. Watch your step for there may be a few cow pies lying around. Climbing up the white sand and clay formations may be slippery at times, so wearing proper footwear or athletic shoes with decent grips will ensure a safe walk up the trail. For those who struggle with balance, bringing a walking stick will also keep you inline to the summit.
The hike is quiet and peaceful. Cows will moo from the distance, and from time to time, a little gray chipmunk will pop out to say hello. As the entry sign alerted, it is important to observe your surroundings in case a rattlesnake lurks about. Though cactus and sagebrush decorate the trail, it’s a good idea to watch your step.
On a sunny day, the terrain will be relatively dry for any skilled hiker. However, the chalky terrain can become slippery when precipitation occurs. So wearing worn out Nikes as I did on my recent hike would not be the best fit for those conditions.
Hiking up to 3,506 feet
Even at 8:30 a.m., the elevation will pinch your hamstrings. Although the hike is relatively doable, it is important to pace yourself especially if the temperatures reach into the upper 90s before noon. Word to the wise, carry a backpack with a bottle of water.
About halfway up to the summit, the terrain almost resembles a picture from the Scotland Highlands with its green shrubs sprouting to the surface. Yet, here I am in North Dakota.
As my hair blows profusely, the thought of being almost to the summit at more than 3,000 feet in the air reminds me of my fear of heights. Following a little wall, made by previous travelers, I began the journey to the top of the butte.
At the summit, an iron post appears along with a donation box where people can give monetary gestures to keep unrestricted access to the trail. It’s also a box containing journal entries of those who have climbed the highest point in North Dakota.
The top provides a vantage on both nothing and everything. The wild and open scene reminds me of a verse from the Alaskan singer Hobo Jim and I cannot stop my lips and heart from singing, "I can see that road spreading over the land, see a young boy standing with a suitcase in his hand. It was long ago, the boy was me, and I was running like a wolf in the mountains wild and free." Though the pinched muscles feel a little tender, the view is breathtaking.
Plan your hike to White Butte
Relatively speaking, White Butte is accessible to a majority of hikers from March until October. To see the flowering cactus and green topography, summer is your best bet. The toughest of hikers and adventurers can test their mettle in the winter's cold.
Whether you’re traveling through Dickinson to Belfield or from Dickinson to New England, the drive to White Butte takes approximately one hour. Before reaching the parking area, you’ll see a vintage farmhouse with a windmill and up ahead, your destination. From the parking area, you’ll follow a cattle fence for the next mile or so toward White Butte.
For high-pointers or even the average hiker, White Butte is an adventure that can be done in 40 minutes to an hour, depending on each person’s speed.
Though my hiking experience is limited in the West, White Butte changed my perspective on North Dakota. It may not be surrounded by a lake they call Gitche Gumee, but it’s in the heart of what makes this state wild and free.