Badlands outside Glendive, Montana

Badlands outside Glendive, Montana

What’s the difference between buttes, hills, and mountains? Never asked? Well, the question was inevitable on a trip I took across Montana last June with four other wordsmiths.

A butte, I soon discovered, was defined as a small isolated hill with steep sides and a small flat top–smaller than mesas and plateaus. In fact, the name butte comes from a French word meaning “a small hill.” That made sense, except for the fact that it seemed to me a lot of the Montana buttes ran together like a range of hills or mountains, called badlands, instead of being freestanding at all.

Badlands rock formation in Makoshika State Park

The distinction between hills and mountains, I already knew, was pretty blurry. The mountains I drove through in Quebec and Maine sure seemed a lot lower in elevation than the ledges on the hills I climbed on horseback in Tennessee. The only explanation anyone had was that they’d always been called hills. So much for geography and geology.

Of course, the easiest way to get answers is to ask an expert, so I talked to Jerry Jacene, consultant for Red Feather Fossil Excavations. Jerry’s explanation revolved on the difference in how the structure is formed. Mountains rise out of the earth’s crust, pushed up from disturbances deep underground.

Cowboys working cattle on the Makoshika Breaks Guest Ranch

Buttes, on the other hand, are created from erosion, when a cap of hard rock (often the result of volcanic action) covers a softer layer. The hard rock avoids erosion, while the soft material around it wears away.

Buttes, in fact, are a hill formation, since hills are created by such things as soil deposits, glacier and water movement, and erosion. Another difference between a mountain and hill formation is that mountains, because of the way they are thrust upward, generally have peaked or sculptured tops, as opposed to the rolling appearing of hills.

Hills are carved out of the landscape by water and wind sculpting and re-sculpting the terrain over time. Badlands, however, are created when soft sedimentary rock is eroded into intricate mazes of narrow ravines, v-shaped gullies, knife-sharp ridges, buttes, and colorful pinnacles.

Makoshika State Park

And hoodoos? Well, they’re formed out of that hard layer of rock required in the creation of buttes. They rise out of badlands like fingers stuck up on a hand, knuckles and all, which is what differentiates hoodoos from the uniformly smooth profiles of rock spires.

Pompey’s Pillar with signature from Lewis & Clark Expedition

Of course, there’s nothing liking getting up close to see for yourself what something’s really like. Makoshika State Park gave us the opportunity to check out some of the most incredible formations in Montana. They included: Caprocks, spires, hoodoos, hogback ridges, fluted hillsides, pinnacles, mesas, and buttes. The park’s name, Makoshika, is from a Lakota word that means “badlands.”

Our group also jumped at the chance to check out Pompeys Pillar, one of the most famous sandstone buttes in North America. Rising 150 feet up from the Montana landscape, it was easy to see how it would have drawn the interest of William Clark back in 1806, when Lewis & Clark made their memorable trek. He wrote in his journal, “…at 4 p.m. I arrived at a remarkable rock…”

Indeed, I had to agree. Even more than two centuries later, traveling across Montana is a journey of exploration and discovery.

If you go


Visit Montana: http://visitmt.com/

Makoshika State Park: http://stateparks.mt.gov/makoshika/

Pompeys Pillar: http://www.pompeyspillar.org/

Copyright Linda Aksomitis, 2007, 2009

Last Updated, July, 2016.

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