Sentinel Butte

Sentinel Butte is an irregularly-shaped, flat-topped butte located less than 20 miles west of Medora and a few miles south of I 94. Some sources suggest that it is possible to drive to the top of the butte, but the most likely road was posted with several No Trespassing signs at the time of my visit.

A small active oil field is located 5-10 miles to the east near Square Butte, but there is little evidence of oil development in the immediate area (only one dry hole recorded within several miles). However, much of the potential scenic value of the area is already lost due to the presence of cell phone and communications towers on the flat top of the butte. It is difficult to take a photograph of the area that does not include these man-made structures. There are a few locations on the closest roads to the south east and east where it was possible to find an angle where the towers are not (or are only slightly) visible.

Tracy Mountain

Tracy Mountain is a little difficult to view from the road, particularly if one is looking for an angle that does not include evidence of oil development.  This “butte” is about a mile from the nearest road and oil development is common to the south and southwest of the location along much of Tracy Mountain Road from its west end where it meets East River Road to the point of the photograph.

Tracy Mountain

The best location I found during this trip was to the south east, just past the point that Tracy Mountain Road crosses Merrifield Creek.  An aside:  Merrifield Creek was the site of a pipeline (saltwater) leak earlier this year.  The soil where the road crosses the creek had recently been replaced when we visited.

An oil well south of Tracy Mountain.  Several wells are visible along Tracy Mountain Road, some of them back right up to the hills just south of the butte.


Here is a map of oil development in the area.  Tracy Mountain is located roughly at T138N  R101w, section 10, near the northeast end of the Tracy Mountain oil field.  Active wells (the dark circles; see for map legend) are located to the south and south west of Tracy Mountain field.  The active Medora and Fryburg oil fields are located to the northwest and northeast, respectively.



Burning Coal Vein and Columnar Junipers

Burning Coal Vein / Columnar Junipers

While the road to Burning Coal Vein Campground was well-marked, the extraordinary place named Burning Coal Vein / Columnar Junipers was not as obvious as expected.  On the second trip around the campground loop, I noticed a road that headed up the hill behind one of the campsites.  This unmarked road terminates at a large overlook at the top of the hill with a plaque discussing the Columnar Junipers.  This location provides fantastic views in all directions.  The only sign of human presence was the dirt road to the campground.

Burning Coal Vein / Columnar Junipers

The junipers, which have a columnar growth form instead of the typical rounded form are southwest of the overlook.  The plaque notes that the columnar form is believed to have been caused by the gases emitted by the burning coal vein.  This growth forms also occurs in areas with significant air pollution.

Columnar Junipers

There was no evidence of oil development in the vicinity of the site during the visit.

Pretty Butte

Pretty Butte, Slope Co. ND

Pretty Butte is located at the far western edge of Slope County, near Marmarth (located on US 12 west of Bowman).  The butte is several miles north west of town on old ND 16.  The road is unpaved, but in good condition during this visit. There were no signs of oil development in the immediate vicinity of the butte, but some wells are visibile along US 12 near Marmarth, and the south west corner of the the state has some large and very active oil fields.  Reviews of GIS oil well data indicate exploration near the butte with a number of expired leases and dry holes nearby.

Marmarth is a small prairie town with a population less than 150 today. It had a much larger population at one time:  in 1911 it was the largest city in North Dakota.  Marmarth is filled with a number of wonderful old buildings.  The Barber Building, built in 1909, housed business on the first floor and an opera house upstairs that was the finest playhouse west of Minneapolis during its heyday.  The Mystic Theatre sits just across the street from the Barber Building and is run by the Marmarth Historical Society.

Marmarth, ND

Black Butte

Black Butte, Slope Co. ND

Black Butte is just across US 85 from White Butte. Black Butte is a typical box butte, markedly different from White Butte only a few miles away.  Dirt roads to the south, west, and north offer the best views.

There were no visible signs of oil development in the vicinity of Black Butte.  Review of the GIS data only indicate the presence of one expired permit in the township.

Black Butte, Slope Co. ND


Black Butte, Slope Co. ND

White Butte


White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota at 3506 feet, is located about 6.5 miles from Amidon in Slope County.  The county is the least populated in North Dakota with fewer than 750 residents (for a density of less than 1 person/square mile).  White Butte is part of the Chalky Buttes which can be seen east of US 85.  However, the best viewing location for White Butte is from the dirt road running north-south about 4 miles east of US 85.

White Butte is located on private property within the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

The was no visible evidence of oil exploration in the vicinity of White Butte at the time of the visit.  Review of GIS data indicates the presence of a dry hole several miles south west of the butte.