Hiking White Butte in the southwestern corner of North Dakota is unlike any other lofty peak we have thus far summited. It is a moderately easy hike, achievable by almost every skill level. The journey starts with a drive across the great wide-open plains of North Dakota with very few landmasses or even manmade objects rising above the grass. The tallest thing living out here is often cattle and they are not overly abundant in a place where the winters have been known to kill a bovine. Still amongst all this nothingness arrises a lush prairie and a few scattered buttes covered by the big, unending blue sky. The area is beautiful and summiting the 3,506′ high White Butte allows a glimpse for us mere mortals to look down on the ancient sea of prairie grass like a bird in the big blue sky.
Trailhead: A small pullout at the crossroads of two unnamed roads.
Rating: Moderately Easy
Total Distance: 3.5-miles (Round-trip)
White Butte Elevation: 3506′
Parking Elevation: 3,068′
Total Elevation Gain: 468′
Location: Southwestern corner of North Dakota
The Best Season for Hiking White Butte
According to Weather Atlas, the southwest corner of North Dakota can be drier and warmer than the rest of the state. But on a whole the winters (November – March) are cold (below 0ºF) and the summers can be hot. The best time for hiking White Butte is September and October when the weather is mild and there is little chance of precipitation. April is typically the rainiest season and windy. May and early June have nice temperatures and the rain subsides but the wind remains. Generally, July and August fluctuate from warm to hot. It has been known to reach over 100ºF.
How Much Time Does the Hike Take?
The White Buttes Trail is short and relatively easy. It only takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to summit the highest point in the state of North Dakota and return to your vehicle. It took us about an 1 hour and forty-five minutes to do the entire hike and we spent about half an hour enjoying the summit.
As one might guess, this is not an easy area of the country to get to. It is, however, conveniently located between the two most visited areas in the Dakotas: the Black Hills of South Dakota and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Highway 85 is the road that traverses the majority of the way between the two popular tourist destinations. Regardless of which way you are traveling along Hwy 85 you will also need to drive for about five miles along a well-maintained gravel road (140 Ave SW). The last mile of the journey is on an unnamed gravel road that leads to a crossroads with a farmhouse just beyond. If all this sounds complicated it is surprisingly easy with small signs pointing towards White Butte posted at each of the intersections off of Hwy 85. Goggle Maps will also lead you right to the remote parking area.
There is a tiny dirt pullout big enough for a few cars located at the crossroads. The crossroads has a small sign indicating parking for the White Butte Trail. Located across the road is a red donation box. The entire White Butte Trail is located on private land. A $5 donation goes a long way to keep the trail open to the public.
The parking area is a mile short of the actual trailhead. It is requested that you walk the privately owned dirt/gravel road for the first mile rather than driving it. Please stay on the road and trail at all times and pick up any trash you might find along the way. It should also go without saying but please do not deface any of the rocks or trees in the area. Use applicable (no camping) leave-no-trace principles so that the kind farmers who own this land keep it open for everyone to enjoy.
Hiking the White Butte Trail
Hiking White Butte is a fairly easy and straightforward journey. The entire trail only rises 438′ above the parking area. You actually gain over 100′ on the road itself before ever reaching the trailhead. The road itself is also very scenic. Cows and horses graze the fields and an old dilapidated farmhouse and windmill rise out of the sea of grass. All along the road the white walls of the butte rise like a beacon above the green waves. The sheer walls of the White Butte formation look intimidating at first but the butte itself is not the actual high point of the state nor the destination. The blindingly white butte just lends its name to the hill.
The Actual Trailhead
Reaching the end of the road, you will find a small gate with a sign that indicates the trailhead for the White Butte as well as a warning to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. The gate is funny in that you could easily walk around it as it is an unfinished fence line. However, stick to the trail and use the gate. Passing through the gate and onto the well-trodden path hikers continue to travel directly south as the path parallels the white walls of the actual butte. While we never saw a rattlesnake we were bombarded by a couple of noisy grackles who did not appreciate us walking so close to their nest. They swooped down closely overhead squawking at us loudly. It was a show that they repeated during our descent.
Two Short Climbs
A quarter of a mile past the gate the path appears to arrive at a trail junction. Stick to the left, the right seems to only inspect the rocky terrain at the base of the butte. The actual trail to the left climbs up two small rocky ridges totaling about 150′ of gain in less than a quarter of a mile before reaching a small meadow with a few beautiful trees overlooking the rocky landscape. There are two paths through the tall grass. They both lead to the same place but the one on the right is more established and the correct one to follow.
The Final Ascent
Once across the small meadow, the trail continues to climb the final 140′ up rocky and slightly loose terrain. At the top of the White Butte is a rolling hill of prairie grass and flowers. Located at the very top is a small section of a few rocks with a marker and ammo box labeled “White Butte, 3,506′”. Inside you will find a registry and other items left by fellow hikers. The peak can be explored for a little ways further providing amazing views in every direction.
Logistics for Hiking White Butte
The closest town to White Butte is the tiny town of Bowman, North Dakota located about a half hour’s drive to the south. This is a small town with a few gas stations, restaurants, and one hotel/convention center. For most visitors hiking White Butte, the trail is a stop on a journey to and from the Rapid City area of South Dakota, and Madora, North Dakota. The great plains are beautiful and the area is a nice place to stop and enjoy the big open skies. But this is not a long-term tourist area and it understandably doesn’t have the infrastructure.
Camping is the best way to enjoy the great plains. The unobstructed sky makes for some really nice sunrises and sunsets but it really reigns as a spot to view the stars. For this reason, we recommend getting out of the towns to where the light pollution is at a minimum. Again there aren’t many options but the Gascoyne Lake Campground, located about a 45-minutes drive to the south, is a great spot and it is also free. This is dry camping with pit toilets being the only amenity. However, it is located on the shore of a small lake making it an especially beautiful area in the great plains.
If you need hookups and want to stay close by head for the Butte View Campground in Bowman. Otherwise, continue your journey to Madora or Rapid City.
If you are looking for a hotel rather than a campground we also recommend continuing your journey to Madora or Rapid City. In Madora we recommend the Rough Riders Hotel. Not only is it located in the gateway town to Theodore Roosevelt National Park but it embodies the character of the tiny town made famous by the 26th president of the United States. If instead you are headed to Rapid City, South Dakota to enjoy the best of the Black Hills, then the Howard Johnson by Wyndham in the downtown area makes a great base to explore all that the area has to offer.
The Smokehouse 85 in Bowman is one of the best restaurants near White Butte. That isn’t really saying a lot since there isn’t much around. But despite that, if you like meat this is a place not to be missed. They have food trucks that travel the state as well so even if you don’t make it to Bowman check out their Facebook page to see if your travels cross paths with their trucks.
Hiking White Butte
Hiking White Butte isn’t a life changing experience but for those seeking the highest places in the United States it is a must-do. It is a surprisingly beautiful hike and it doesn’t hurt that you don’t have to be an expert mountaineer to bag this peak. Given the remote nature of this peak it isn’t a destination in and of itself but it is a great day hike when traveling between the outdoor mecca of Rapid City, South Dakota and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Share this post about Hiking White Butte with your trail buddies.