White Butte -- 3,506' -- North Dakota Highpoint

White Butte - North Dakota Highpoint

To date, I’ve visited roughly half of the nation’s state high points. All have been unique in their own special way. Some, like say Mount Elbert of Colorado, are predictably beautiful while some end up being a bit less than photogenic (I’m looking at you Delaware). The most beautiful, however (in my humble opinion), are those which remain off the beaten path…those which greet highpointers who seek them out with a feeling of completing some kind of remote exploration. White Butte, the lonely high point of North Dakota, is just such a place. Located in Slope County in the southwestern corner of the state, White Butte sits upon a landscape of rolling high prairie punctuated occasionally by numerous other low hills and buttes. The high point, and the Chalky Buttes of which it is part, get their name from the striking white and yellow/white color of the sandstone rock which is exposed on their slopes. Visit in the summer as I did and these brilliant cliffs rise in all the more striking contrast with the green fields which surround them. There is a stark beauty here which I’ve experienced in very few places. This open landscape also means that, despite its rather diminutive 3,506’ height, White Butte still commands sweeping views to all points of the compass from its summit. Needless to say this was a hike that I immediately knew I needed to add to my itinerary as soon as a trip to North Dakota took place. I had my suspicions that this would be a highpoint hike to remember and, boy, was I right…

The primary effort required toward summiting White Butte might be just in figuring out where the hike starts from (and how to get there). The best way I’ve found is to search “White Butte Trailhead” in Google Maps. Thankfully, despite its remoteness, the area sports decent cell coverage so following directions from Google is a reliable option. If you’re wary of GPS directions then you can use the following as well:

From the South (Bowman, ND):

- Head NORTH (from the intersection of US-12 and US-85 in Bowman) on US-85 for 12.2 miles.

- Turn RIGHT (east) onto an unnamed gravel road, continue for 4.0 miles.

- Turn LEFT (north) onto gravel 140th Ave SW, continue for 5.0 miles.

- Turn LEFT (west) onto another unnamed gravel road, continue for 1.0 miles.

- Parking area is marked by a white sign and donation post (do not block drive).

From the North (Amidon, ND):

- Head EAST (from US-85/Main Street intersection in Amidon) on US-85 for 2.0 miles.

- Turn RIGHT (south) onto gravel 140th Ave SW, continue for 5.0 miles.

- Turn RIGHT (west) onto unnamed gravel road, continue for 1.0 miles.

- Parking area is marked by a white sign and donation post (do not block drive).

As noted in the directions above the parking area is marked by a white sign and a large metal post where hikers are encouraged to make a donation as a thank you to the owners of this land who so kindly allow public access ($5 is a recommended amount). Alongside the white sign an old farm two-track cuts due south across the grassy landscape. This two-track isn’t technically the start of the trail, but you still have to walk it to reach the true trailhead, located about a mile away. Also…DO NOT DRIVE DOWN THE TWO-TRACK…it is for foot traffic only! Starting out along the farm road White Butte rises straight ahead, less than two miles away. The going is easy for this first mile as the two-track maintains a fairly level grade with only a few minor dips and rises along the way. Open fields stretch out in every direction…cows may be munching on grass along the neighboring fence line. These are distinctively odd surroundings for the start of a high point hike. Just over a half mile up the farm road a forlorn wooden house, long abandoned, sits alongside a rusted windmill. Take a minute, as I did here, to picture what life must have been like for the people who first settled in this remote local. The weathered, tired look of the old home speaks volumes of the harsh and wild environment which needs to be endured to create a life here. Continuing south from the old farmhouse the terrain begins to roll a bit more and, at about the mile mark, a metal gate and another white sign mark the start of the official trailhead. Pass through the gate (making sure to close it behind you!), and you’re now on the official path to the roof of North Dakota.

The trail begins much as the farm road ended, crossing flat grasslands. Soon, however, the striking white northern cliffs of White Butte begin to surround you as you enter a broad open drainage. The summit is easily identified above as are the grassy northern slopes of the butte which the route will follow to get there. The climbing starts with a short, potentially slick, climb. If it’s wet you’ll want to step very carefully. After the first short climb things ease off for a bit as the trail winds above the drainage from where you ascended. A short time later another short, moderately steep, section leads to a broad sloping grassy field with the summit ridge rising above. Crossing this field the final, more extended climb begins. As you approach the summit you might notice as I did that, rather than a flat-topped table as its name implies, White Butte is in actuality very ridge-like. As the trail keeps up the moderately steep grade the views become ever more expansive. Curiously shaped rocks also dot the hillside. Perhaps a hundred yards before the top the grade levels out again and the tiny summit bump marking the top of North Dakota appears ahead. A USGS benchmark atop a tall pole, a small memorial plaque, and a metal ammo box marked “White Butte 3,506’” decorate the summit. Open up the ammo box and sign the trial register inside, then stand up and take in the spectacular 360-degree panorama which surrounds you.

In every direction the high western prairie reaches out to the horizon. The rest of the neighboring Chalky Buttes rise to the south, west, and north. Here and there the paths of tiny creeks can be seen cutting their way through the grasslands. There is little of the hand of man to be seen from up here. The sense of remoteness is palpable. White Butte, simply put, is incredible. It is places in nature such as these where the soul finds rest. You might be tempted as I was to continue wandering…the neighboring cliffs and ridges beg to be explored. This is private land though…so please refrain as I did from doing this. A faint path extends west along the summit ridge a short distance providing more open views in that direction. It’s a place you’ll regret leaving. I missed it almost as soon as I started back downhill. The return journey retraces the route from earlier. Once again take care if things are damp on the descent and make sure to soak in every last view you can before returning to flat ground. Before long you’ll be back amongst the tall grass, passing back through the metal gate at the trailhead, and following the old farm two-track for the final mile walk back to the start. Make sure to take one look back though as you pass the old farmhouse. With White Butte rising beyond, it’s a picture-perfect mental image to finish the hike with. I can’t really say more than what I already have. Though I wouldn’t travel cross-country just to visit it, a hike of White Butte is certainly something any hiker should consider if they’re in the general vicinity. Just respect the land. It is an exceedingly rare and precious thing to have private landowners who are so accommodating to strangers crossing their land. Please be good stewards when you visit to assure that future explorers can enjoy White Butte as you have. That said, I now present to you a hike to the spectacular roof of North Dakota…as always, ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  46.410043, -103.300439

Route Type:  Out-and-back       Difficulty:  MODERATE  (Petzoldt Rating:  4.30)

Hike Length:  3.4 miles                Hike Duration:  1:45

Trailhead Temp:  55'F                  Trail Traffic:  1 person

Min. Elevation:  3,070'                  Max. Elevation:  3,506'

Total Vertical Gain:  450'             Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  264'  (approach only)

Trails Used (blaze color):  White Butte Trail (unblazed)


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  • Dave Kathy Weemhoff

    on August 5, 2019

    such serene, rugged beauty! Yes, how special that the people owning the land would allow hikers like yourself! The views never cease to amaze.... thanks for sharing!