Road Trippin’ and Storm Chasin’ in the Badlands Part 1

The Mild-Mannered Explorers did it. You can do it! An exploration of one of the state’s high points led to a photographic chase of a magnificent storm system.

The pair watched the weather forecast for days and finally settled on a Tuesday morning to road trip to the southwest corner of North Dakota.  On her bucket list: Explore Sentinel Butte, capture the green landscape, blue skies, and puffy clouds.  They got all of that and more.

Offset work schedules make Tuesdays good days to go road-trippin’. So, they did.

“We need to get some photos of the green,” she advised.  “And if we can get blue skies and white clouds, I think the photos will be excellent.”

Of course, she was right. She was always right.

I-94 headed west toward New Salem

I-94 headed west toward New Salem


Mid-morning, they loaded up the 4-wd Chevy with food, drinks and camera gear to last a day or two on the road.  Always be prepared.


Headed west on the Interstate, the cloud cover appeared thick, but as the day heated up, the clouds melted away. Quick stops at Dickinson and Belfield to say “hi” to friends of the explorers and the badlands that are beautiful, then west on old Highway 10.  60 years ago, this was a major transcontinental highway until Interstate 94 superseded the two-lane blacktop.

Sentinel Butte rail road grain elevator

The rail line made Sentinel Butte a vibrant town. The rail is still there, but the grain elevator is no longer operating.

Once at the town of Sentinel Butte, they repeated a tour through town they’d done several times in the last few years.  Still, there may be some changes they hadn’t seen.  There were none. “I don’t think there’s any place here to get a snack or a drink,” he advised. “Let’s think about a picnic down the road.”

One butte. Two plateaus. Saddle between.

“Good,” she exclaimed. “I like picnics and tailgate stops.” She winked at him with a teasing smile.

Sentinel Butte gravel road

Headed south from the town of Sentinel Butte to the landmark Sentinel Butte.

They headed south out of town, then up the road to the top of Sentinel Butte.  It’s listed as one of the highest points in the state, about 75 feet shorter than high point #1, White Butte.

The heat settled in on the couple, but once on top, a breeze helped comfort the hot explorers.  In the clouds, there was only a hint of the building energy coming their way.

town of sentinel butte

The town of Sentinel Butte is three miles north of the butte.

 They grabbed their cameras, strolled through the prairie grasses to the northern edge of the first and largest plateau on the Butte. Three miles away, the town of Sentinel Butte lay protected in the hills. Sentinel Butte storms pass by but rarely impact the town.

purple coneflower

The western plateau on Sentinel Butte is home to many varieties of western grasses and plants.

As hoped, the plentiful white clouds puffed across the blue sky. Their shadows oozed across the contours of the rugged earth.

Square Butte as seen from Sentinel Butte

Square Butte as seen from Sentinel Butte.

The old road cuts up the face of Sentinel Butte

It’s a rugged hill with a smooth top

“Look,” he pointed out. “Here’s where the old road used to go.” The slash across the face of the butte left a scar hinting at earlier days when local drives could come up on one side to a plateau, skirt the ravines and head down the other plateau.  “I don’t think I’d try it now,” he scowled. The gash across the hill was narrow, rocky and unpredictable.

“Let’s hike to the other end.”  She was always up for a bit of exercise, even when the temperature was edging past 80 degrees.

East end of Sentinel Butte as seen from west end.

The other end of Sentinel Butte is easily seen and easily accessed on foot — if you’re prepared to do a fair amount of walking.

He attempted to argue, but then shrugged and agreed. They shed a couple of layers of clothes that hours earlier seemed appropriate. Now too warm. They stashed small bottles of water in his hot weather vest and took off to the east to get a better view of Square Butte and the Custer Trail below.

sentinel butte east end rocky point

The far eastern edge of the eastern plateau on Sentinel Butte is a rocky point. Square Butte is on the horizon.

They dipped down the saddle between the two plateaus, and up the other side. At the far eastern end, the butte became very rocky – good for rattlesnakes.  So, they picked their way cautiously across the ridge and saw not one of the poisonous reptiles.snake den in the rocks on Sentinel Butte

Sentinel Butte storms

The sun was hot and their skin tone showed the redness of summer.  The hike back west to their truck was quicker than the first leg, the hike east.

They dropped the tailgate of the pickup to munch on chips and an ample amount of recharging liquid while the wind cooled their skin. “I think the wind is increasing,” she observed. 

“It is, and so is the size of those cumulonimbus clouds. They’re growing, and I bet they’ll be pounding the spread of the landscape down south.” For the last hour, the sky rumbled with distant thunder, deep and extended grumbling from the south.

Sentinel Butte storms

Storm clouds begin to build along the ND/SD border near Bowman.

Sentinel Butte storms

That was the direction they had planned to travel, but now questioned the wisdom of heading in to a storm path.    “I think we can do it.  In fact, let’s head to the Three V crossing to see the change from the end of winter when we were there.

“I dunno,” she questioned.  “If it’s storming and raining don’t you think the water will be too high to cross?” 

“Not really,” he assured her.  The crossing is built up enough to handle any water flow that’s not an actual flood like last spring.  Most of the heavy water that’s coming downstream is coming down the Missouri River and the Yellowstone. The Little Missouri River will be fine.”

The way down the hill

The Mild-Mannered Explorers packed their cooler, slammed the tailgate closed, and took the road back down the side of the butte. 

The drive down the side of Sentinel Butte is not a drive like anywhere else in North Dakota that we know of.  Here’s how it looks:

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At the bottom, they planned their route with a topographic map and followed the clouds building to be atmospheric skyscrapers.

“Wow. This light is perfect,” she said.Sentinel Butte storms

Tomorrow, Part 2.  Lots more pretty pictures!

And tomorrow, you, fine reader, will see what the Mild Mannered Explorer meant in Part #2.  Green fields, red scoria roads, massive clouds make great photographic memories.

Road trips through southwestern North Dakota are visually stunning.  Almost no one knows about the beauty and history of the region.  Get a glimpse here

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