The True Challenge of White Butte
A family of hikers on a quest to summit the highest points of as many of the 50 states as our ability allows, we arranged our return trip from a recent camping vacation out west to allow us to climb one of the few Midwestern “peaks” we had not yet completed. Headed up through Colorado and Wyoming, we eventually reach North Dakota where the highpoint of White Butte is our destination. Having recently completed the Minnesota highpoint in June, and summiting Oklahoma and Colorado while out west, we view this destination as an easy hike, not much of a challenge.
White Butte is located on private property in the Little Missouri National Grassland in southwestern North Dakota. Described as Class 1—Easy, the starting elevation on the hike is 3,100 feet and the elevation gain over the one mile trek to the summit is a mere 406 feet. This is a bit deceptive, however, as much of the elevation gain occurs during a very short span of the hike. The owners of the property have graciously consented to allow highpointers to traverse their farmland for a nominal fee for the purpose of summiting the North Dakota peak.
Directions to reach the summit are specific and unique. They involved traveling along US 85 and turning south onto a gravel road to reach the Dennis property. Along the way, travelers are to be careful to watch for a Catholic Cemetery and mile marker 43 to ensure turning onto the correct unmarked road.
After traveling approximately five miles, we are instructed to turn onto yet another unmarked gravel road. Watching the odometer carefully becomes necessary for completion of this highpoint as it has been for many others we have climbed. In our five year quest, we have come to learn that highpoints are often located off the beaten path on unlabeled roads so mileage counts are essential. Locating the correct road, we drive up the driveway and “past the green house” as instructed (hopefully they have no plans to paint it or highpointers would be in trouble), feeling like the trespassers we are, maneuvering through a field along the fence for nearly a mile. As our directions provide, we park near an old farmhouse and prepare to hike.
Our guide advises us to watch out for snakes in the grass as we step out of the car, so it is with extreme care that we exit our vehicle. Special equipment listed as necessary for this hike is a walking stick due the rattlesnake issue and we are all so equipped. We see no snakes but immediately become aware of persistent and ferocious mosquito attacks that make our feet move quickly along the trail. Sticks in hand, we set out at a leisurely pace, in the market for a bit of a morning stroll, due to the fact that it is 7:00 a.m. on a hot Sunday morning and we had traveled 14 hours the previous day. We walk along the fence for about 350 yards, eventually breaking into a run along this flat footpath to avoid the bites; it is mosquitoes, not rattlesnakes that vex us.
At this point we are able to see the highpoint ahead of us in what was described as a grove of trees. Initially looking for a forested area as is more common in our native Wisconsin, we soon realized that the “grove” was a scattered clump of small trees in the distance. We quickly head toward them, following our son Ryan at a dead run, dodging the numerous cow pies and potholes made by very large footprints in mud, now hard, dry and treacherous to the ankles as we race through them.
The trail was flat for much of the distance, only spiking up a short but very steep hill (directions warned that if there had been recent rain in the area, the hill would be impassable; thankfully, there had been no recent storms), leveling out for another brief section, then gaining elevation again as it reaches the summit. We hike up the first hill, inadvertently choosing the wrong path and making the process much more difficult for ourselves, given that the route we chose was primarily made up of large rocks and talus, rather than the smooth trail we later discover just off to our right. We traverse the next flat section, heading toward the “solitary tree” (bush) ahead, then on up to the highpoint.
Once at the top, it is easy to see the beauty of the place. Spare and sparse in terms of vegetation, hikers can see for miles in any direction. We appreciate this peace and beauty quickly, however, as the swarms have discovered us. After taking a few photos to commemorate the experience, we race back down the hill to the car. Listed as a two mile round trip hike that would take one to two hours, we hit the car after 44 minutes, which includes the ten minutes for photos and appreciating the view from the top. Ryan beat us by several minutes.
No rattlesnakes after all—just hordes of mosquitoes! We had been warned that our recently completed Minnesota highpoint might be our fastest hike due to the frequent and persistent mosquito attacks. Those, however, were nonexistent compared to North Dakota where we were literally attacked by swarms of angry insects as we disturbed their peace and tranquility by trudging through the native grasses. This was indeed the hike we raced through due largely to the insects. It became a workout in that sense—the race to avoid the bites, though each of us left the Butte with several dozen such mementoes, except for 17 year old Ryan, who endured the 90 degree run in long pants and a sweatshirt! That may have been too high a price to pay.
Lesson learned: it may not be the threat you are warned about that you need to be wary of but something else entirely! Well-prepared with our walking sticks to ward off rattlesnakes, our deet-laced mosquito repellent was safely ensconced in our camper, 20 miles to the north of our hike. It may just be better to summit this highpoint in winter—or at least after the first frost! Search for Woodall’s inspected campgrounds. for more ideas about finding camping adventures in North Dakota.