A good friend of mine once joked about North Dakota that the sign at the entrance read: “Welcome to North Dakota: Mountain Removal Project Complete.” It’s a joke that reflects the fact that North Dakota has all of the characteristics of most Western landscapes, but minus the big mountains you may find in states just to the west, such as Wyoming or Montana. It’s also a joke that, if misinterpreted, would tend to give the impression that North Dakota is entirely flat. Once again, I’m pleased to report that is not true at all, and that the “Mountain Removal Project” missed a few spots, in particular, the Killdeer Mountains.
The western portions of North Dakota are as wide and scenic as anything other western states have to offer. Most of it is speckled with solo buttes and plateaus that appear as if they were chunks of larger mountains cast off into the plains long ago by some colossal force. (This sense is not entirely without a scientific back-up. Volcanism from the early Rocky Mountains accounts for a variety of deposits all along the Great Plains). Within this vastness, there is a somewhat larger “range” known as the Killdeer Mountains. The Killdeer Mountains are more a product of erosion as opposed to uplift, but they stand impressively about 750 feet above the surrounding valleys, and more than 1,400 feet above the nearby Little Missouri River. They sport a nice cliff band near the top that has vertical sections 50-100 feet high. Are they mountains? Reasonable people may debate and disagree the finer points, but stand along its flanks, listen to the wind singing through the grasses, view the distant buttes on the horizon, and then you’ll know its true character, and know that it matters not how we define it.
Note: The area is also the scene of a historic battle in 1864 between U.S. Troops and a confederacy of Teton, Yankton, and Dakota Indians, which is commemorated as the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site.
Nearby is also Little Missouri State Park.