For years, we’ve been curious about chimney butte – especially as we learn more about early cowboys, ranching and the settling of the west. We didn’t know what an impressive landmark it is — or the view from the top.
We knew years ago we’d hike it when we found it. We found it. What a climb!
Famous Chimney Butte
A rancher who has befriended us owns the range around the base of Chimney Butte.
Its name is synonymous with 1860’s ranching, the town of Little Missouri, the town of Medora, and of course the man who would become president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s first ranch is cattle ranch was the Chimney Butte Ranch, later Maltese Cross Ranch. (You can access digital information about Roosevelt at the Chimney Butte Ranch from the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.)
Our benevolent rancher friend said climbing to the top of Chimney Butte could be done — his wife and grandkids had done it.
Since the butte itself is public ground, but it is surrounded by his private ground, we needed his permission to cross his private land.
He said we could hike it. He advised us to go up the north side where the vegetation and slope were easier than the other three sides.
He was right, we found out the hard way.
A little bit about geology: In the Badlands, there are buttes, and then there are BUTTES!
Chimney Butte is a BUTTE. Any of those tall land masses protruding from the landscape that has a flat top are called buttes. If the top is sculptured or rounded it’s a hill.
Chimney Butte is a flattop towering monolith. It towers above adjacent hills and buttes.
White clouds on the western horizon gave us a bit of foresight then we might be in for some rain. But mostly, they were just there to decorate the skyscape. They make for good photographs, providing interest and contrast to landscape images.
We turned off I-94 just west of Medora on West River Road and followed it south from Old Highway 10. It’s one of the most stunning roads anywhere for a Sunday afternoon drive.
We parked at the base of Chimney Butte.
Between the base and the road is a lush pasture of different grasses and wildflowers.
It’s always an easy start on any hike. Our legs were fresh and the anticipation of what lies ahead provided the fuel to get going.
By the time we reached the actual base of the towering butte, those white puffy clouds had become dark. We watched them pass to the south, dropping a hazy foggy rain shower.
Then, the drops started reaching us.
I spotted a rock overhang and thick cedar tree that might give us a bit of shelter from the coming rain. Mary snuggled in tight, and I sat in the entrance.
We watched for about 15 minutes until the rain passed, then we went back to the climb.
Change of Route
However, now, because we had veered away from the “easy” north side, we were in for a rocky challenging climb that would test the strength of our legs and our “grippy” hiking boots.
Ultimately we crawled and gently stepped up a ridge to the base of the scoria top. Using our hands to grab a rock above us or a branch of a sage bush, we pulled ourselves up.
We rested several times, each time looking above to see if we could pick the easiest route, or if we should go back down and come up in the trees on the north side.
We kept going.
The last 20 feet of the climb is a sliding, unstable, slippery pile of scoria. Not one step was secure. Instead, we’d step up, then slide back down a little. Another upward step, and a slide back about a half-step. Step, slide, stop. Step, slide, stop.
Finally, at the top, we got the visual reward we were after.
View from the top
The 12-foot diameter grassy top revealed miles of Badlands. From there we could see many of the flat top highpoints in the region – Black Butte, Bullion Butte, Square Butte, Sentinel Butte, and Camels Hump – (which actually is not a butte but a hill).
For nearly a half an hour, we stood and admired the unending landscape around us, and the storm clouds that would eventually produce a bit of a rainbow.
A sweeping panorama video
Tough going down, too
No, it was not easier going down than going up. Our legs were tired. We sidestepped down the loose scoria and gravel bed.
Step, slide, stop. Step, slide, stop.
It’s cramping time. That uphill leg that never gets to straighten out will cramp up when you don’t alternate the lead leg.
Part of the way down we found faint wildlife trails switching back and forth across the face of the slope. That was our salvation. We took the meandering barely-there trails to the bottom, then realized we’d gone too far. A steep ravine lay ahead of us. So, we went back up the hill to cross over above the start of the ravine.
Once we got to the grass and wildflower pasture, it was like walking in shag carpet. Deep 18-inch tall shag carpet.
Back at the jeep, chug some water. It seems we never take enough water, even when we are both carrying a liter or so of water.
Oh man, our legs were tired. Sitting in the jeep was like sitting on a fluffy cloud.
Speaking of clouds. They were still bouncing around us.
So, we headed into Medora, for a picnic at Chimney Park before heading home. It was about 9:30 central time (8:30 mountain time) and still very light.
It never goes totally dark since we were just two days past the summer solstice. Even at midnight when we pulled in the driveway, the sky to the northwest was still light. If we’d stayed up another couple hours, that light on the northwest horizon would appear on the northeast horizon.
But alas, a quick sponge bath, and we crashed. Hard. But at least we didn’t crash land at the base of Chimney Butte.
Not up for a challenging climb? Try this gravel road trip we took south from Sentinel Butte to Marmarth — and take your camera. It’s worth it!
Quiet moments to “get away from it all” abound in the North Dakota Badlands.
Take an armchair tour of the Badlands right from your computer screen by browsing images we’ve collected. More than a dozen subjects with hundreds of images — you can buy them, too!