Moving to Hawaii • Hiking White Butte, North Dakota’s High Point • September 8, 2017
Jess: We were up before the sun this morning, and we packed up camp and got on the road quickly. Our goal for the day was to hike White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota, which was about 3 hours away from where we had camped. We hadn’t done a lot of research for this hike because we weren’t sure we were doing it until the night before, but while at the Center of the Nation museum in Belle Fourche I had used their wifi to take a few screenshots of directions to the trailhead and recent trail reviews on AllTrails. I knew that the trail would be very exposed to the sun, so we thought it was best to start as early as we could in case it turned out to be a hot and sunny day as it was the day before.
We watched a beautiful sunrise over South Dakota as we began heading North on US-85. While we were in a hurry to reach the high point trailhead, we did have one small detour we felt was necessary. If you recall from the day before, we stopped at the “Center of the Nation” monument only to find out that the REAL center of the nation was 20 miles North in the middle of a field. So…guess what we did? We drove 20 miles North to stand in the middle of a field! We turned off of 85 onto what Google calls the old US 85 and drove about 8 miles until we saw it: the US flag standing in a field, with a pile of rocks by the side of the road. We pulled over and got out to go stand in the center of the US, Alaska and Hawaii included. It was worth it. 🙂
In fact, there wasn’t a single moment that we regretted our decision to drive to North Dakota over our other intended route. Yes, I’m positive we would have been fine doing that drive as well, because we love long road trips and being out West just makes us happy. I hope that we can someday drive across Northern Wyoming and Southern Idaho and do things we had planned to do, but had we done that drive, we would still want to come back and do this drive someday. There is so much to see out West, we hope and pray we will be able to spend a lot more time out there someday!
The highway was empty and the views were great and expansive, with tall buttes and flat prairies spread out on the horizon. We crossed into North Dakota — a first for both of us — and drove through the small towns on the way to the high point. I had read that there were no signs for the turn off from 85 onto a gravel road, but there turned out to be one just a couple miles East of Amidon. We followed that road for about 3 miles, then turned West onto another road and found the trailhead a mile in, and parked on the side of the road. The people who own the land are fine with people hiking to White Butte, there is a mailbox for donations which we happily obliged. The owners of the lot right next door have different opinions though and had recently put up “No Trespassing” signs. It seems confusing at first, but you’re fine so long as you stay to the right side of the fence. It definitely didn’t feel as easy and straightforward as other high points, but by reading other reviews carefully we knew what to expect. We followed the tire ruts in the road keeping the fence to our left down for a mile until we came to a gate. On our way, we could see the land owner’s blue house to the right a ways away, and we passed by an old run down brown house.
Once we came to the fence, we entered into the open pasture (complete with cows) and followed the trail to the left. As expected, there was no shade on this entire hike, but thankfully there was a strong wind that kept us cool while we walked. Soon, we were approaching the butte and began hiking up the steep slope. It was very similar to hiking in the Badlands; I had read that it can be very slick after rain, but thankfully it was dry today. I had also read warnings about rattlesnakes, but we only saw one garter snake.
Soon, we made it to a ridge and were able to see the high point and the valley to the South, and were surprised to find it full of trees — the most trees we had seen while driving through Northwestern South Dakota and Southwestern North Dakota! The remainder of the hike was all uphill and exposed, but the hike in all is only 4 miles round trip and is definitely one of the easier high point hikes we’ve done. We were all alone up there, and were very happy that our 13th high point was a success! From what I understand, we picked the perfect time of year to do this hike. North Dakota can be over 100º in the summer and has sub-zero temperatures in the winter, so if you’re planning a trip here keep that in mind.
We hiked back to our car and tried to decide what to do next. Shockingly, we had phone service out in the middle of nowhere, so we looked up letterboxes (there’s like 26 in all of North Dakota) and found one that looked interesting West of where we were. We found the location in our Atlas and noted that it had no roads, dotted or otherwise near it. In favor of adventure and letterboxing, we once again abandoned US 85 in favor of a dirt road, and it ended up being a great idea.
Curtis: We headed west towards the Little Missouri River following signs for the ‘Burning Coal Vein’. The mention of the coal vein in the letterboxing clue was what drew us out there in the first place. Lightning had struck an exposed portion of a coal vein and set it on fire. The coal would burn the area then go underground, only to reappear hundreds of meters away. This happened in Pennsylvania in the ’60s, and resulted in an entire town be abandoned, but in ND they just let it burn.
The fire apparently went out a couple years ago, but that doesn’t mean the detour was any less worth it. Instead, we got to see the beautiful canyons and ravines carved by the Little Missouri River. Pink and white stratified buttes stretching out as far as the eye can see. We stopped to get the box (and see the non-existent fire) and just enjoy the remoteness. Should we ever drive through the area again, we’ll likely camp here.
We then continued on pink-colored dirt roads North, following signs for Medora enjoying even more views of the landscape with every turn. We briefly considered visiting the South unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP which is just outside of Medora, but figured it would be much like what we had already seen. Besides, we have to save some things for a return trip.
Jess: Once we made it to I-94, we decided to press on and try to make it to Billings, MT, which was about 3 hours away. We entered Montana (another first for us!) and while we had previously believed that all of Eastern Montana was flat, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we could still see buttes, hills, and valleys in either direction. Not to mention, the Yellowstone River is quite scenic itself. Maybe another day we’ll even take the time to go explore those areas.
It was while driving on the interstate that the tire pressure light came on, and when getting gas Curtis found that one of the tires had a slow leak. Based on the distance between filling it up and having the light come back on, we figured that it had started while driving that pretty pink road through North Dakota. We stopped to fill it back up several times on that drive, until we finally made it to Billings. We decided to get a hotel that night so that we could plan out the next part of our trip, and Curtis made an appointment with the Sears Auto Center to have the tire patched early the next morning. Since we had purchased the tires from Sears, the patch job was free! Not only that, but Billings happens to have the only Sears Auto Center in all of Montana, as well as a very wide radius around that. While it obviously would have been more convenient if it didn’t happen, we were thankful that things worked out the way they did! We were also very glad to have showers, a nice dinner date, and a warm bed to catch up on sleep.