Bill Sniffin: I Like Big Buttes And I Cannot Lie!

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes, "Between Wyoming’s soaring mountains and spectacular valleys are a series of bumps, called buttes, all over the state – and I love them all."

Bill Sniffin

February 17, 20247 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Between Wyoming’s soaring mountains and spectacular valleys are a series of bumps, called buttes, all over the state – and I love them all.

Not sure why they seem so unique to me, but perhaps it comes from flying over them in small planes for 30 years. Buttes are special when seen from the ground but seeing them from above is best of all.

Wyoming’s giant mountains are spectacular but I was never a good enough pilot or had a powerful-enough airplane to fly over most of our biggest mountains. But, buttes, I flew over them all the time and loved every minute of it.

The name “butte” generally refers to a flat-topped bump on the landscape.

Plateau And Mesa

Flat-topped hills can also describe a plateau or a mesa. Here is the difference. The biggest of these is the aforementioned-plateau. Next in size is the mesa, like all over the Grand Junction area. And then comes their smaller cousins, the buttes.

I should mention that up in the Powell area, their flat-topped mesa-looking hills are called “benches.”

Oregon Buttes were a major Oregon Trail landmark Bill Sniffin for Cowboy State Daily
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

My favorite buttes are also the most significant ones of all – the Oregon Buttes. These spectacular bumps on the Continental Divide were so historically important because of two big reasons:

First, the 400,000 people who travelled the Oregon Trail loved getting to these buttes because it meant they were now over the Continental Divide, that huge line of mountains that runs north and south in North America. If you made it to these buttes, it was now mainly downhill to Oregon and California and Utah.

The second reason is that the buttes were part of Oregon Territory back in those days between 1850 to 1867. Although the emigrants were just half way they were ecstatic to have arrived in “Oregon.”

The late Randy Wagner of Cheyenne was an expert on South Pass. Nobody covered the Oregon Trail (and the Oregon Buttes) like Randy did. We sure miss that big guy.

Chief Washakie Scores A Victory

Crowheart Butte was a site of a historical fight in 1866 Bill Sniffin for Cowboy State Daily
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Another famous butte is on the Wind River Reservation between Dubois and Lander/Riverton called Crowheart Butte. Here Chief Washakie of the Shoshone fought Big Robber, the chief of the Crow tribe, for the rights to the Wind River Basin in 1866.

Washakie won and cut out his rival’s heart and hoisted it on a lance, as tribute to his bravery.

The rest was history as Washakie lived to be over 100 years old.

He is the only Indian chief to be given an official USA Military burial, as testament to his friendship to the white peoples.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Back in my flying days, we owned some newspapers in South Dakota along with our Wyoming properties.

My favorite air route from Lander to that neighboring state was over the Pumpkin Buttes southwest of Gillette.

These are magnificent and can be seen for miles away. They were just excellent waypoints.

Long-time Buffalo resident Jim Hicks says he has no idea how they got that name. “No pumpkins anywhere near those buttes,” he says.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Perhaps the most famous butte in Wyoming is not a butte, at all. Devils Tower, in the extreme northeast part of the state, looks like a butte but is, in fact, the core of an old volcano. It is so special it was made the country’s first national monument back in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

When you fly over that 867-foot-high monolith, it was easy to marvel at the thought of climbing it, which is done thousands of times each year.

Last time I was there as a tourist walking around the base, someone hollered at me from far above. It was Jeff Rose of Lingle climbing the tower with his daughter.

One of the best-run RV parks in the world is at the base of the tower. It is owned by Ogden and Zannie Driskill.   

Some Of My Other Favorite Buttes

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    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
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    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

 A totally weird-looking butte is Rawhide Butte, outside of Lusk.

It is named that because of a poor guy who was skinned alive by Indians way back when.

Each year the town of Lusk celebrates that incident with its Rawhide Days. That event is on my bucket list.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

In the Rock Springs area are the landmark Pilot Butte and Black Butte, home of a huge coal mine. Down there in the high prairie country buttes stand out as landmarks. You can see them from a great distance.

Steamboat Rock stands out in the Red Desert as a landmark with a distinctive shape along with the imposing Boars Tusk, which probably is not a butte, at all.

Near Beaver Rim is the apt-named Dishpan Butte. It just sits there, alone, looking impressive. Farther east on that road following is Split Rock, which perhaps is not a real butte, but was a terrific landmark for emigrants on the Oregon Trail.

Twin Butttes near Burgess Junction in the Big Horn Mountains Tim O Leary for Cowboy State Daily
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Also, in the Red Desert north of Rock Springs are Twin Buttes. One of them has a strange rock cross on it. Not sure if it was made by Indians or white men. Another favorite place is the Honeycomb Buttes near South Pass, which feature a great many vision circles.

Twin Buttes are a dominate feature in the Big Horn Mountain near Burgess Junction.

North of Jackson is Blacktail Butte, which has a unique aspect. It looks like a Chocolate Easter Bunny lying on its back. An amazing thing to see once you spot it.

Fossil Butte National Monument near Kemmerer Bill Sniffin for Cowboy State Daily
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

A truly famous butte is Fossil Butte outside of Kemmerer-Diamondville, which is a National Monument. The fossils pulled out of that place are just stunning. Paul Ulrich’s family has a fossil business there that offers amazing tours.

Thermopolis is surrounded by impressive red rock buttes. On one is a huge writing: “Home Of The World’s Largest Hot Spring.”  They are proud of that fact and they should be.

The Red Buttes west of Casper were a famous boundary among ancient Indian tribes. Outside of Lander is a prominent landmark also called Red Butte, which is one of my favorites.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Near Newcastle is their famous Red Butte, which is so significant, it is featured on the masthead of the local newspaper, according to Newsletter-Journal publisher Bob Bonnar.

The famous Heart Mountain between Cody and Powell sure looks like a butte but is considered a mountain. It has an amazing geologic history that deserves a column in its own right.

The Famous Independence Rock

Close up detail of Independence Rock Dave Bell for Cowboy State Daily
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Another rock that could be called a butte, but is not, is Independence Rock along the Oregon Trail between Casper and Jeffrey City.

This edifice is famous because emigrants wanted to reach it by July 4, hence its famous name. You can today crawl up the side of the rock and see names of pioneers who scratched their names into the soft rock way back to the 1850s.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Green River is surrounded by Butte-like rocks. Most impressive is Castle Rock, which towers over the city, and was originally known as Green River Butte.

I am sure I missed a bunch of notable buttes, but these are the ones that come to mind. Wyoming is full of a great many bumps but the best of them are called buttes, or maybe “beauts” in my vocabulary.

Bill Sniffin can be reached at:

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.