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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Aug 18 2015

Where Horizons Stretch to the Edge of the World

Near Ekalaka, the Chalk Buttes spark intrigue, offer towering views

Exploring Montana, Featured

On September 1, Montana Wilderness Association will release Buttes, Breaks and Badlands: Off the Beaten Path in Southeast Montana, a geotourism map of everything that makes this part of the state special, including its wildlands, museums, and eateries. MWA's AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Forrest Theisen, who helped create the map, describes one of the many adventures you can have with the map serving as your guide through this largely undiscovered part of Montana.

The Chalk Buttes are a stunning and surprising landscape hidden in the southeast corner of the state. They lie about 15 miles southwest of Ekalaka, a town that used to call itself “the end of the road” – that is, before they paved the highway from Ekalaka to Alzada. Before 2010, Ekalaka boasted that it was the only county seat in the U.S. that didn’t have a paved road running through it.

Ekalaka’s historic little main street is home to a few restaurants and the Carter County Museum, exhibiting homesteading history, Native American artifacts, and a host of paleontological discoveries, including a complete triceratops skull and one of only a few complete duck-billed dinosaur skeletons in the world. In fact, the badlands of Ekalaka have also produced pachycephalosaurus, pterosaurs, tyrannosaurs, ankylosaurs, and the first and most complete juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found. Mounts and casts of these are on display, along with real dinosaur bones. Research continues in the area, and the museum hosts the annual Dino Shindig every July, where visitors can speak to paleontologists and visit actual dig sites.

It’s a good idea to fill up on supplies before heading out to the Chalk Buttes. The gravel road begins before you even leave town. Heading south of town on Chalk Buttes Road, you will begin to see the buttes rising from the surrounding prairie. The white sandstone buttes rise seemingly out of nowhere, providing relief to a surrounding landscape without much defining it. The buttes, plateaus, and stream valleys are speckled with Ponderosa pine, and in some places you can even find deciduous trees, uncommon in the region, including birch along intermittent stream valleys.

Public access to the chalk buttes is available only on Trenk Pass Road. Once you enter the forest, the road becomes more of a rough two-track, so if you don’t have a high clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle, park just inside the entrance. You could spend days, if not weeks, exploring the valleys, ridges, plateaus, and forests among the buttes. But if you’re only here for a night or two, head southwest.

Parking near the entrance sign, you can climb up a steep hill and follow a rugged ridgeline while bushwhacking your way south and west. After a few small saddles you will find yourself on the largest butte in the area with an incredible plateau that will make you forget that your hiking at an elevation that towers over 700 feet above the surrounding prairie. Tall fields of prairie grass and Ponderosa hide the cliffs edges until they appear right before your feet. Hike along the plateau’s eastern edge to glimpse the horizons that seem to stretch to the end of the world. Up here, you could believe the world is flat.

On the western edge of the plateau you will see more of the white cliffs of the Chalk Buttes. Keep an eye to the sky, because turkey vultures will likely be circling high above just in case something goes horribly wrong. The high plateaus can be a great place to camp on top of soft prairie grasses overlooking the surrounding area. Be sure to stake down your tent – it can get windy.

From the high plateau in the Chalk Buttes, look west to see another large butte in the southwest corner of the national forest. Fighting Butte stands as an island butte among the forested valleys and plains to the west.

Locals have handed down the story of Fighting Butte for over a century. Native Americans who lived in the area first told the story to an old hunter around 1890. The story has become somewhat nebulous over the years, but this much remains: In 1873, a battle took place between two tribes, forcing one to retreat up the steep slopes onto the high shelter of the butte. Here the retreating tribe was massacred. No one knows if it was by gun, arrow, or by starvation. Much speculation has been brought to the story. Let your imagination fill in the blanks while you visualize the battle from the surrounding cliffs. Ambitious hikers can descend one of the gullies on the west side of the plateau and hike up to the top of that historic site.

Be sure to pack your binoculars and scan the valleys and hillsides for mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and even mountain lions. The cliffs and buttes also provide an island of habitat for a variety of birds of prey and other prairie bird species. There are also a few black bears that have made the Chalk Buttes their home, so we recommend traveling with bear spray and practicing safe food storage when traveling in the area.

While the road might now be paved through Ekalaka, the community and the land have remained the same. A remote wild landscape with a charming gateway community and friendly faces welcome all who are willing to travel the great distance from the interstate.

- Forrest Theisen, MWA's AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer