If you live in the Great Falls area you know that Square Butte between Cascade and Sun River is one of the area’s most visible physical features.
You might say it is one of our symbols, so much so that the great western artist Charlie Russell would use it in his early 20th century paintings.
I’ve been driving past this gorgeous butte for more than 30 years, admiring it and always saying to myself that someday I would climb it. I’ve craned my neck from my airplane seat to get good looks at this massive hunk of rock.
Square Butte, not to be confused with another gorgeous central Montana butte near Geraldine, is a laccolith, a volcanic extrusion. The magma has found a crack in the crust and squirted up through it, creating these flat-topped semi-mountains.
These buttes dot the horizon between Great Falls and the Rocky Mountain Front.
The problem is that the butte is not on public land and it takes some effort to track down a landowner and get permission to go on top. Nearby Crown Butte, closer to Simms, is run by the Nature Conservancy, and doesn’t require permission getting. If you’re intimidated by seeking out landowners and dealing with them, that’s a great place to get started seeing these buttes.
The weather here this December has been quite open and dry, not exactly good skiing weather. I’ve seen reports of six inches of snow in the Teton Pass country and Showdown has only 24 inches, which isn’t great for cross-country skiing in the backcountry. Hiking the butte is a great alternative.
So I finally tracked down a friendly landowner and got permission to climb Square Butte from its southeast flank.
The weather Sunday was cloudy and foggy to begin with, but by early afternoon it had cleared sufficiently that we could get breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountain Front to the west, and see the Big and Little Belt mountain ranges, the Highwoods, Sweetgrass Hills and Bearpaw Mountains, as well.
Driving up, the butte looks impenetrable, its volcanic walls rising 1,000 feet above the valley floor. There was a fresh skiff of snow, which coated these hills like frosting on a layer cake.
As you near the walls themselves you realize that they are not as solid as they look from afar, but have many breaks in them, presenting interesting climbing possibilities.
We decided to do a rock climbing route that required the use of our hands most of the way up, although there’s a much easier walk-up on a rough road not far from where we started. It is about 1,000 feet from the road through the rock wall. To the top-most point on the butte’s northwest side, is 4,793 feet, about a 1,300 foot gain.
Once on top there’s undulating grass as far as the eye can see. I had heard that the top of this butte hadn’t been grazed, but I was quickly disabused of that notion when I saw cow pies, fence, and a stock-watering pond.
We kept to the perimeter of the butte, gaining and losing a couple of hundred feet many times as we walked this “square” butte that is about a mile and a half wide and two miles long.
The most interesting features of walking it this way are the regular “cuts” in the rock buttresses. They revealed massive rock faces. We enjoyed poking around these cuts admiring the views and figuring out routes down them.
Throughout the day we encountered large herds of mule deer on the butte itself and below us as well.
Once the clouds had lifted and the fog cleared, we were treated to the snow-covered Rocky Mountain Front marching out in front of us, and the surrounding buttes.
One of our party remarked that a walk like we had done should be required of all school children in the area because it revealed such amazing scenery so quickly and easily. It is about a half-hour drive from town to its base.
How could I disagree?