Mike Jacobs: Here’s a travel tip for Memorial Day weekend

Bullion Butte is not the highest point in North Dakota, but it is without question the most imposing.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

This week’s column is unusual. It offers very specific travel advice. The destination is Bullion Butte in the Little Missouri Badlands in the southwestern corner of North Dakota. The occasion is a celebration.

Conservationists have won a victory in the years-long effort to preserve some areas of the Badlands as roadless and as potential candidates for designation as wilderness. A federal appeals court ruled against the state and several southwestern counties. The plaintiffs claimed areas that the U.S. Forest Service had designated as roadless should be open to road building because the state owns the section line rights-of-way. Not so fast, the court said. They belong to the federal government.

The ruling was more procedural, though. The plaintiffs had failed to present their case on time. In fact, they were more than a decade late. This could prompt an appeal, though the U.S. Supreme Court might be preoccupied with other issues. Still, Bullion Butte and a few other roadless areas in the Badlands need protection, and the Badlands Conservation Association has organized a hike to the top of Bullion Butte to call attention to the butte and other roadless areas and to raise up more advocates for their protection.

The hike will be led by Lillian Crook, who grew up near the butte and has been an advocate for its protection for all of the years I have known her. Clay Jenkinson, North Dakota’s most noted public intellectual, a humanities scholar and a student of Theodore Roosevelt, will also be involved.

It’s not an undertaking for the faint-hearted or the short-of-breath. In an announcement of the hike, Elizabeth Loos, executive director of the BCA notes, “This is a strenuous all-day hike. … Participants must bring their own food, snacks, water, camping and hiking gear, first-aid supplies and anything else that makes this a pleasant outing for your level of participation. Hiking boots are a must.”


Participants should meet at Chimney Park in Medora. There’s potable water there “but not after one leaves there heading south” toward the butte, Loos notes. Meeting time is 9 a.m. Sunday, May 29.

Loos’s memo continues: “Please do not leave the Chimney Park Sunday morning without the group leaders. One can get ‘lost’ on the gravel roads to Bullion Butte and erroneously stray off public roads and public lands. Group leaders may not have cell phone signals at varying points on the weekend. There will be a variety of people of all ages and levels of stamina. By participating in this outing, individuals assume the risk.

“But it will be fun,” Loos concludes.

Bullion Butte is not the highest point in North Dakota, but it is without question the most imposing. In her release, Loos dubbed it “The Mother of All Buttes.”

My acquaintance with Bullion Butte began in 1971, when I was a reporter at the Dickinson Press. My first “ascent” was with Ike Ellison, who was district supervisor for the Little Missouri National Grasslands, which are administered by the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture. In our many excursions into the Badlands, Ellison always pointed out the Forest Service signs declaring that these were “lands of many uses,” and he clearly believed that recreation and isolation were among those uses. Much of my understanding of public lands I owe to my friend Ike, who died earlier this year after a half-century-long career in managing public lands.

Once I undertook the summit all by my lonesome. I conceived a “vision quest,” and went to the butte to experience one. I thought I might earn a name for myself, as Indigenous people do on such quests. And I did. The wind blew in my face climbing the butte and through my tent when I got it set up. My name, I decided, would have to be “Michael Howling Wind.” That was also the hike on which I saw my first rattlesnake and also my first poorwill and my first violet-green swallow. Bullion Butte is one of the only places in the state where you might encounter these birds.

There’s no record of how many people have climbed Bullion Butte, but Theodore Roosevelt must have been one of them. His first Badlands ranch was only a few miles north of the butte. My friend Jim Fuglie, once the state tourism director, insists that Roosevelt killed his first buffalo “in the shadow of Bullion Butte,” but some people think otherwise. The kill might have occurred just inside Montana Territory. It’s a trivial objection. Bullion Butte dominates the landscape in that area. It can be seen from I-94 as the highway crosses the Badlands.

Over the years I’ve been to the top of Bullion Butte perhaps a dozen or more times, each of them rewarding and each of them memorable.


Lamentably, I won’t be able to join this year’s hike.

BCA asks for RSVPs at Box 2337, Bismarck, N.D., 52502-2337 or at 701-226-4266.

Full disclosure: Suezette and I are members of the Badlands Conservation Alliance.

Wrong again: Fufeng Group is negotiating with private landowners for the site of its corn milling plant. The city of Grand Forks does not own the property.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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