Birnt Hills?

Yeah, I heard of Birnt Hills, but I never really had the motivation to check out the area.  My bad.  Now I wish I’d visited before now.  It’s the kind of tranquil place that a lot of people would like to find these days.

We were reminded of the Birnt Hills or Burnt Hills by a woman we visited with the other day in Watford City. She described it as the place where she likes to go for rest, recharging, restoration, and rejuvenation.  She called them the “burnt hills.”  Or maybe she said, “birnt hills.”  I didn’t ask.

McKenzie County has ample shoreline where people can find history and seclusion.

Birnt Hills is one of those places.

Lake Sakakawea Shoreline

Until this week, I’d only heard about them, mostly when I lived in New Town. I knew they were west of one of my favorite areas near Charlson. Back then, shoreline access along Lake Sakakawea was virtually free and unregulated. Now, it’s more restricted.  That’s one of the reasons a trip to the National Grasslands Burnt Hills area is worthwhile.

We headed up Highway 1806 past Tobacco Gardens (that’s another story) followed the signs along the gravel road and ended up in a parking lot on the south side of the Missouri River, the upper reaches of Lake Sakakawea.

birnt hills

An easy 3-mile trail wraps around the Birnt Hills.

An Easy Hike

We jumped out of the Jeep, passed through the gate, and followed a quarter-mile path through the grass and sage to the overlook.

Once we got a little farther, we could see over the hill. That’s where we saw a three-mile easy trail looping around the slope next to the water. Apparently, it can accommodate any level of fitness – and I think it would be a fun trail for a young family.

The storyboards at the overlook tell how the Corps of Discovery battled the wind to make their journey across the northern plains.  It’s the spot where we stopped to read history.  A short stroll, and a short video show you what it’s like.

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It seems to me, this would be a place where birders could tick off species on their bird watch list. Prairie, woodland, and water birds can be spotted.

wood fence birnt hills

Woodlands, prairie, and shoreline attract a variety of birds

Birnt Hills Trail is a 3.1 mile lightly trafficked loop trail featuring beautiful wildflowers. It’s rated as moderate, but I’d call it easy. The trail is primarily used for hiking, camping, nature trips, and bird watching and is best used from March until September. Dogs are also able to use this trail.

Lewis and Clark Named them Birnt

And how did it come to be known as “Birnt Hills?”  Well, that’s apparently an 1806 spelling of the word “Burnt,” and it probably refers to the clinkers, cinders, and scoria the Corps of Discovery saw in the Badlands area of the Missouri River.  Of course, much of what they saw is under water, but you can get the idea of what they saw.

I found their journal entry from August 1806. It is here:

This region of the Missouri River, the Badlands along the river, and Lake Sakakawea hold a huge amount of history.  

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For example, as I understand it,  a couple of days after floating down past the Birnt Hills,  the pair of explorers got back together again. That’s when the Corps of Discovery made it to Reunion Bay near New Town.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I find Badlands next to Lake Sakakawea?

The region from Williston to New Town was wide open Badlands until the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the valley.  Today, you can go to Birnt Hills or places such as the Little Missouri Recreation Area north of Dunn Center, east of Killdeer.

What is the correct spelling of the Birnt Hills?caps ad infogram

Merriwether Lewis called them the “birnt hills” using an 1806 common spelling.  He passed through here on the way to Reunion Bay to meet William Clark.

Where are the Birnt Hills?

The Birnt Hills are about 25 miles northeast of Watford City, North Dakota, past the Tobacco Gardens off of Highway 1806

Where can I hike in the Birnt Hills?

A short quarter-mile-long trail leads from the parking lot to the overlook.  To the west is a three-mile trail that winds down along the hillsides toward the water.


Watford City and McKenzie County. The Hub of Western North Dakota!

Watford City and McKenzie County. The Hub of Western North Dakota!