Shaping Up at the Butte
Not Exactly Fun, but Inspiring
Story and Photos by Michelle B. Coates
Sometime during the last forty years, I let myself get out of shape. I blame that on two major surgeries and a decision that eating out and bringing home take-out food would help me to work longer hours, when in reality it was ruining my health.
But thanks to the encouragement of my friend Lissa Dobrusky, I spent five years walking around public parks in Rexburg, eating better, and trying to get back into some sort of shape. At Smith Park, I had to rest just going up an incline by the Veterans Memorial, which was pathetic, but that was where I was. Anyway, after years of walking the parks and doing workout videos, I felt like I needed more of a challenge. On a warm, sunny Sunday morning in May 2015, I found it.
I decided to do something I hadn’t done since Mr. Scott’s Madison Junior High seventh grade science class—hike the North Menan Butte that lies a few miles west of Rexburg. That first hike would have been back in the fall of 1975 or spring of 1976. I remember getting out of the bus on the east side of the butte, hiking to the top, where we sat on lava rock and ate our sack lunches, and then hiking down to the bus. It was hot, and I remember it wasn’t much fun.
Nearly forty years later, I called Lissa and said, “Let’s go on an adventure today.”
“Okay,” she replied quickly, and that was the beginning of many hiking challenges.
That Sunday, I drove Lissa around to the west side of North Menan Butte to the paved parking lot. With water bottles in hand and not knowing what to expect, we began an ascent of nearly eight hundred feet. The first part of the trail is gravel, and it gradually inclines until you reach a metal gateway, which leads onto a sandy path that becomes much steeper and pulls at your feet as you walk past sagebrush. Eventually the trail levels out and you reach a kiosk, where wildlife you might see on the hike is described.
I stopped about six times between the parking lot and the metal gate, doubled over, fighting for air. Lissa cheered me on, telling me I could make it. When we finally reached the metal gate, about fifteen minutes after leaving the parking lot, I felt like I’d really accomplished something, but then I looked back and realized we hadn’t walked that far. Even so, I was determined to go on.
If the gravel trail was hard, the sandy trail was worse. We made it to a scrubby juniper and stood in its shade until I could breathe normally again. Then Lissa and I moved slowly upward through the sand to the first kiosk, where we stood for a while, drinking water and getting our breath back.
The trail from that point on was dirt and even went downhill for several yards, which encouraged us to continue. We found ourselves in a series of switchbacks, climbing over rock, walking past sagebrush, cactus, and wild flowers, reaching areas where pole fences had been placed to keep us on the right path, and which even, in some cases, gave us handholds to pull ourselves up the rocky trail. The higher we climbed, the more difficult the hike became. Close to the top of the butte is a section of trail where chain is strung between metal posts, which we held onto to help pull ourselves up the slick rock. Once past that area, we finished the final ascent to the top, more than an hour after we had begun.
The view from the top of the butte is amazing. To the east you can see the Tetons, and to the west is the Sawtooth Range. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Pocatello in the south and Yellowstone National Park in the north. I was hooked. I didn’t want to go back to the car yet, and the trail here on the top looked pretty easy, so I convinced Lissa to keep going. It didn’t look that far to go all the way around the butte.
We had taken plenty of water and some snacks with us, so we turned south, rounded the trail, and walked out across the stark, wind-swept rock to the farthest edge. We peered over. We could see a path continuing around the east side far below us, but couldn’t make out how to get to it. I called over to some younger people, asking if they knew where the trail was to get down. One of the men shouted, “You have to slide down.”
Lissa and I looked at each other in fear. To the left of us, the top of the butte sloped into the crater. It looked like we might plummet to our deaths if we went that way, but the rock right in front of us looked like it might be a place to get down. I sat on the edge and nervously started inching my way over and down a narrow crevice in the rock. Lissa followed. Eventually, we reached the bottom, and then continued to the dirt trail we had seen from the top.
From there, it was fairly easy going for a while, until we started the climb toward several cell towers on the northeast corner of the butte. Partway up this trail, I spotted a kiosk dedicated to Lee Terry, who had died while hiking the butte. He had been my seventh-grade social studies teacher at Madison Junior High School, and was one of my favorite teachers of all time. Reading about his dedication to the butte and its conservation was a poignant reminder of him and my childhood, which gave even more meaning to my hiking experience.
Lissa and I continued upward past the cell towers and headed around to the north side. I don’t know what it is, but I love that part of the trail, and to this day it’s still my favorite. It’s an easy walk, with amazing views of the Sand Hills, and it always seems peaceful along there. However, as we rounded the corner to head across the west side, the trail (if you could call it a trail) became really difficult. It all but disappeared into jagged lava rock, and I think Lissa and I may have forged a new path that day. We kept watching for footprints in the sand, dirt, and rock we were on, trying to see where others had hiked before us. We climbed over lava rock and helped each other over and down the steep parts, finally reaching the main trail that took us back to where we had begun our journey around the top of the butte.
That day I began to understand why people climb mountains. It’s the sense of accomplishment, knowing you can push your body to do things you didn’t think possible. For me, it’s also the solitude. The peace. To sit and listen to the silence. It’s also about companionship and sharing the experience.
When Lissa and I finally made it back down the steep switchback trail to the car, we were tired, our feet hurt, and we were hungry. The journey had taken more than three hours. Before we had started around the top of the butte, I had commented to Lissa that we should do this hike every day, yet by the time we reached the parking lot, I said, “Let’s never do this again.”
But we did.
We ended up hiking North Menan Butte eight times that year. Toward the end of June, on another Sunday, we ran out of water before we started the trek down from the top of the butte, having made it nearly all the way around again. It was brutally hot that day. The temperatures must have been in the high nineties, if not higher. With no water and searching for any inch of shade we could find, we suddenly felt a chill come over us. Standing in the heat and feeling so cold, I knew we were in trouble and had to get back to the car as fast as we could. That was the first time we ran at the butte. We were both ill for three days afterwards, and could barely eat anything. When we look at pictures we took that day, we can see the heat shimmering in the strange, hazy light of the photographs, and although our expressions are happy, it’s also evident that sunburn is forming.
After we recovered, we switched to another BLM hiking route, the Cress Creek Nature Trail near Heise Hot Springs. We hiked this trail eight times that year. Trees shade much of it, and the cold mountain stream running down the west side of the trail at least gives the impression of coolness in the heat of summer. While Cress Creek is a good workout, with its own challenging switchback trails and beautiful views of farms and sunsets, it doesn’t hold the magic for me that North Menan Butte does. I feel energy at the butte, even in struggling to reach the top every time I hike there.
On our final hike of the year, back at North Menan Butte, I was nervous because we had been so sick from the heat a few months earlier. It was a Sunday in October, which began as another warm day, although toward the end of the hike I had to pull my snow hat out of my backpack and put it on. A sudden biting wind had come up and the temperature dropped, making my ears hurt. Even so, I’m glad we finished our hiking season there. Lissa and I have experienced all kinds of weather at the butte, sometimes in the same day, but the views of the Snake River Valley and the amazing sunsets have made it all worthwhile.
We’ve seen ants, rabbits, hawks, and have been startled by a few snakes. Never again will we hike through the crater—I had no idea snakes could leap through the air as if they were flying—the warmth there is a haven for snakes. We’ve seen deer prints but no deer, although others tell me they’ve seen them. Humans and their dogs far outnumber any other animals on the trail. I’m amazed at how many people do take advantage of the place. Lissa’s young grandson Jackson made the hike to the top of the butte with us one June evening in the summer of 2015, and the following June he went all the way around with us. My husband Blair and youngest son Phillip joined us on a Cress Creek hike in June 2015, and Lissa’s son Mike came with us a few times to both the butte and Cress Creek in 2016.
Last year, Lissa and I beat our 2015 record, hiking North Menan Butte fourteen times and Cress Creek eight times. Whenever we hike the butte, we see young people who look like they’re on their first date, with no water bottles, wearing the wrong shoes, and we know it isn’t going to end well for them. We’ve also seen people running the entire trail. On a solo hike to the top of the butte on a Sunday afternoon in May 2016, I met a woman who told me she hiked there because it helped her to clear her mind, and I understood what she meant.
Even last summer, I still found it a struggle to make it to the top, and it probably always will be, but I could hike to the metal gate without stopping, so I feel like I’m making progress on my road to better health. On a Sunday in October, I made a solo hike all the way around in two hours and twenty minutes. It has now become a personal challenge to beat my time, and even to run parts of the trail.
The weather was good enough last November that once again Lissa and I headed to the butte after work, thinking we could make it to the top before sunset. We weren’t the only ones with that idea in mind. The parking lot was crowded with cars. We quickly headed up the trail and made it to the metal gate in four minutes. It took us thirty-three minutes to reach the top of the butte that night, a significant improvement over our first hike the previous year. It was nearly dark as we started down the trail, using the light from our cell phones to help us find our footing. By the time we reached the car, where we sat for a few minutes and ate a snack, the stress of the workweek had faded away, and we agreed that we felt ready to face life again.
When I hiked the butte all those years ago as a young student, it wasn’t fun, and to be honest, it isn’t what I would call fun now. But it’s an adventure that has given me the confidence of knowing I can accomplish physical challenges I once thought were impossible. I can’t wait until next summer, when I’ll pull on my hiking boots, pack plenty of water, and head out the door.