By: Marc Bowen
There are two cratered buttes not far from Rexburg Idaho called North and South Menan Buttes. About 38 years ago while attending Ricks college I climbed down into one of them. I wasn’t hiking though. It was a stupid response to a dare from a college friend to see if I would drive my Jeep CJ5 down into the bottom and back up the other side. We escaped injury on that trip (although the Jeep required some minor repairs). I was young, dumb (that particular day anyway), somewhat naive and not too concerned with safety issues or environmental impact concerns…So recently I have been planning on hiking the North Menan Butte but the weather has been bad. Finally the weather broke enough for me to go (although I did get snowed on 3 different times during the hike).
These two ancient volcanoes are two of the worlds largest volcanic tuff cones, slightly larger then better-known tuff cone, Diamond Head on the island of Oahu. The North Menan Butte (the larger of the two buttes) is publicly owned and is designated a National Natural Landmark and a Research Natural Area by Congress. The N Menan Butte Trail is a 4.2 mile out and back trail that ascends the west slope to the rim (an elevation gain of 1,158 ft) and then circles completely around the crater and back down the west slope.
There are several ways to get there. From Rexburg it’s about 11 miles to the trail head. You can go west on hwy 33 then left on East Butte Rd then west on Twin Butte Rd until you reach the trail head parking area. Or north from Menan on N 3600 E/Twin Butte Road until you get to the parking area.
Hiking The Butte Trail
The above photo was actually captured at the end of the hike but as you will see in the next photo there was a dusting of snow on the butte earlier in the morning when I started my hike.
The first section of trail is well maintained, well marked and a nice steady climb. It was a little chilly at first but it wasn’t long until I could remove my outer layer of clothing.
At various places along the trail there are interpretive signs with interesting facts about the area. This sign talks about the wildlife in the area and the different habitats needed to survive. Behind the sign and across the highway I could see the Deer Parks Wildlife Mitigation Unit. It is a 2,500 acre wildlife management area that is great for bird watchers as there are about 38 different species in the area.
At this point in the trail I started seeing spots of white snow on the fence railings from the most recent snow storm. When taking a break to catch my breath I always turn around to enjoy the views. My camera is attached to my right shoulder strap of my pack using a CapturePro clip so it is always ready for use.
Farther up the trail gets very rocky and hard too see if not for pole fences and a chain fence to guide you in the right direction. This portion of the trail is pretty steep, had me breathing hard and my legs were starting to feel the grind. All along the west slope I could see small caves, and a lot of lichen covered rock.
I use trekking poles so I didn’t need to grab hold of the chain on the way up. I can see where they could help a hiker with no stick or poles.
The Crater Rim Trail
As you reach the rim of the crater you can go right (counter-clockwise) around the crater or left (clockwise). I chose left but would recommend going right for anyone hiking this trail for the first time. I will explain why later in this post.
This interpretive sign is the second sign I saw as I hiked the trail north on the west rim. The sign faces west towards the Lost River Range of mountains. That mountain range has seven peaks over 12,000 feet high including Mt Borah the state’s tallest. The sign explains how the Snake River Plain below was formed and how large it is. It extends from eastern Oregon to Yellowstone National Park.
From the west rim I could see the parking area for N Menan Butte and three other buttes on the horizon. East Butte, Middle Butte and Big Southern Butte. Those buttes are collapsed volcanoes (no craters). Just beyond them is Craters of the Moon National Monument.
The next interpretive sign I came to faces north west towards the Lemhi Range and explains how that range was formed.
At this point on the trail as I turned to my right and looked south east down and across the 200 foot deep crater and the east rim I could see the Snake River winding it’s way through the valley.
The above photo I captured while standing in the same spot as the previous photo but looking at the south rim of the crater and the part of the trail I just came up.
It was great to see all the different rock formations in the area. Ever since I was a kid I have been kind of a “rock hound” and have an interest in geology. I actually took a geology class at Ricks College in Rexburg not too many miles from here.
While looking out over the plains I loved seeing the numerous storms moving through the area. Looking north the St Anthony Sand Dunes can be seen in the distance.
The St Anthony Sand Dunes are the largest set of dunes in Idaho and cover 175 square miles. They are 35 miles long and 5 miles wide and the dunes range from 50 to 400 feet tall… While on this part of the trail I noticed the wind picking up and the temperature dropping and as I looked out over the plain I could see a storm headed my direction so I prepared for snow. By the time the storm hit I had on my warm outer coat, stocking hat pulled down over my ears and gloves on and was actually quite comfortable and the brief storm was beautiful.
By the time the storm had passed I had reached an area where the trail connects with an access road. The sun came out, the wind quit blowing and it warmed up enough where I needed to remove my outer layer again. This is the north summit of the butte and it has a communications installation. It is disappointing to have this nature area marred by technology but understandable given its the highest point in the area.
Just past the communications towers the maintained road ends and turns into the remnants of a 4 wheel drive track. There is another interpretive sign facing west towards the crater and has information about the raptors in the area.
Looking north east from this area the Henry’s Fork of the Snake can be seen below. In the distance I could see the Rexburg Temple and on very clear days the Tetons can be seen 50 miles away…This butte I am standing on also has another name. The locals call it “R Mountain” because of the big white ‘R’ painted on the north east slope that can be seen for miles.
Some interesting facts from this sign were that these rivers support one of the most extensive cottonwood gallery forests remaining in the western United States and from here is an excellent view of where the Henry’s Fork and South Fork come together to form the Snake River. I could also see more snow storms moving through the area. I got hit with another storm just down the trail from here.
This is the only flowering plant I saw in the area so probably still a little early for wildflowers.
East rim looking west. This sign was put up in memory of Coach Lee Terry who coached cross-country for 20 years at Madison High School. He trained on these trails and always taught by example the importance of keeping natural areas like this clean, pristine and free of trash and human debris…While on this hike I saw half a dozen people running the trails. Several days ago was the Spitfire Ultra Race, an annual 12k/25k race on N Menan Butte.
Looking from the south rim towards The South Menan Butte… Earlier in this post I recommended hiking the crater in a counter-clockwise direction instead of clockwise. At this point in my hike I had a difficult time distinguishing the main trail from other faint trails in the area and as the trail began climbing up the south rim from the lower east rim I couldn’t see very far ahead of me because of the steepness of the trail.
The trail I thought was the the correct trail took me into the bottom of what is called the Wind Bowl. It is also a dead end. So I back tracked and it took me awhile to find a faint track up some steep rocky areas to get to where I needed to be. By hiking this trail from the other direction (going right instead of left or counter-clockwise instead of clockwise when you reach the rim of the crater coming from the trail head) I think it would be easier to see the trail. You can usually see a lot farther ahead of you hiking downhill then uphill.
The interpretive sign that talks about the Wind Bowl explains how the bowl was formed.
Looking down into the Wind Bowl I could see S Menan Butte and the town of Rigby in the distance.
Looking south west and standing in front of the Glass Mountains sign I learned about the composition of the rock underneath my feet and how these buttes were formed.
Heading back down is always a little quicker then coming up and a time for me to reflect on what I have seen, learned and experienced.
This was a nice spring hike. Not too difficult but a nice progression to more difficult hikes down the road. My daughter and I plan to take my grandsons on this hike sometime in the next week. That will be great fun!