Midwestern US, US High Points

On Top of North Dakota: White Butte

Chelsea and I both have the goal to summit as many US state high points as possible. Up to this point, we’d both stood on a few of them… separately. This time, we decided we’d visit a couple together! The states? North and South Dakota. And so, two days after the end of my semester, we set off for a long weekend in the Dakotas. It was a whirlwind 4 days with a lot of driving. If you read my last post, you know we got off to a little bit of a rough start. But we still had fun and it was nice to get away for a few days.

We arrived at our hotel in Hill City, South Dakota well past dark and basically collapsed into bed. The next morning, we dragged ourselves out of bed much earlier than we wanted. We had a long day ahead of us: a 7 hour round-trip drive up to North Dakota and back, plus a 3.4 mile (5.5 km) hike. It was a lot of driving for such a short hike. But the high point is in the middle of nowhere so there really isn’t a way to reach it without driving quite a distance.

So off we went, on what turned out to be one of the more anxiety-inducing drives of my life. The final few miles to the trailhead were on dirt roads and after our Nebraska debacle we were scared of getting stuck again. Fortunately, we arrived to find the roads dry. And also gravel rather than clay so even if it did start to rain we probably would be okay.

The trailhead for White Butte – the highest point in North Dakota – is on private property about 25 minutes north of Bowman, ND. There is no fee required, but the owners have put up a donation box; it’s good practice to donate a few bucks, as they certainly aren’t obligated to allow public access to their land. There is parking for a couple vehicles at the trailhead. In good weather the roads are passable by any car.

It was foggy when we arrived and sadly would remain so for the entirety of our hike. So, unable to see anything, we set off. The first mile (1.6 km) of the trail follows an old road along a fence with an old building and some trees on one side and cows on the other. They watched us curiously as we walked past… and were very unimpressed when we mooed at them.

Views along the first mile of the trail

After a mile, we reached the original trailhead (you used to be able to drive to this point). We headed through the gate and continued to follow the trail to the summit. All 400 feet (122 m) of elevation gain on the hike is here in this last 0.7 miles (1.1 km). Had it not been foggy, we probably would have been able to see the summit. Instead, we found ourselves constantly looking up at what we thought was the summit, only to reach it and see another higher point barely visible through the clouds. But eventually we reached the actual summit (elevation 3506 feet/1069 m), marked with a pole and a summit register.

The original trailhead; 0.7 miles and 400 vertical feet to go
Photo by Chelsea
White Butte summit
White Butte handstand (photo by Chelsea)

It was cold at the summit; with windchill it couldn’t have been more than 35°F (2°C). So we didn’t stay long before heading back to the car, making good time as it was all either downhill or flat.

And that’s the North Dakota high point. It’s a bummer it was so foggy; everything was so green and flowers were blooming… I’m sure the views would have been pretty.

White Butte marked high point #10 for me, so I’m officially 1/5 of the way there! Granted, this is a massive undertaking that I’ll be working on for many many years. I’ll need to learn quite a lot of mountaineering if I’m ever going to climb some of the most challenging ones. But a few years ago I never thought I’d be capable of the kind of the backpacking and snowshoeing I regularly do now… so anything is possible!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the trailhead is located about 15 minutes off Highway 85 north of Bowman, ND
  • Fees and passes: none required, but the high point is on private land so it’s good practice to put a couple dollars in the donations box
  • Hiking: round-trip distance from the trailhead to the summit is 3.4 miles (5.5 km) with about 400 feet (122 m) of elevation gain
  • Where to stay: the town of Bowman is about 25 mins south and the closest lodging option
  • Other: please respect the private land by parking only in the parking area, staying on the trail, and closing the gate behind you

19 thoughts on “On Top of North Dakota: White Butte”

  1. For a brief moment I had the 50 high points as a goal, but I might have to be content with only a handful of them! This one looks nice and easy (minus getting there), so I may add it to the list! How fun to do this with a friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know North Dakota isn’t as flat as Nebraska has a reputation for being (and a reputation we perpetuate on the pod 🙂 ), but I never thought “North Dakota” and “false summit” could be used in the same sentence. Your recent posts are really giving me an education!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s nothing better than going for a hike in sunny weather, but even when it’s foggy, you can still enjoy the fresh air in the mountains, plus these low light conditions can often provide fantastic opportunities for stunning photos. I am glad to see that even after all the driving and hiking, you still managed to do a handstand, Diana! Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point! I’m hoping to do CO and UT still this year, which are two of the more challenging ones in terms of endurance. We’ll see how they go!


  4. Yes, it was a pity about the weather … only 2 degrees at the top – chilling!!
    But there’s something magical about a walk in misty conditions … which mean, your photos have a little bit of mystery about them 😊.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t heard much about North and South Dakota, although I’ll say that the latter’s more of the famous one of the two, particularly for the Badlands (which I’d love to check out someday). Too bad the fog was thick when you went to North Dakota, but it certainly made for a mysterious-looking (and cool) photo!

    Liked by 1 person

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