Oct 23

Getaways: Storming the Castle

by Brett French

CASTLE BUTTE — With such an expansive view, it was almost as if I could see the curvature of the Earth to the north. Certainly from this high place on the plains of Eastern Montana, I could see a long distance — the Pryor Mountains to the southwest, Steamboat Butte to the west, the Bull Mountains northward and brown undulating plains to the east.

The view came with a price, though — a steady pounding by a frigid southeastern wind. Dropping off the top onto the western side of the vantage point, it was as if I had hopped from April in Montana to April in Miami. The temperature was warm and the wind was only a hiss in the boughs and needles of the pine trees above. Fragrant tart sage scented this leeward side.

Castle Butte — located about 50 miles northeast of Billings and roughly 15 miles north of Pompeys Pillar — was an area I had never heard of before the Bureau of Land Management released its Resource Management Plan last month. That may be because the butte’s sandstone walls are home to several early historic pictographs, a couple of them quite detailed. Fear that such rock etchings may be vandalized prompts many folks to keep these precious sites quiet. But anyone scanning the Internet can easily find the location, photographs of the rock art as well as interpretations of some of the inscriptions.

Castle Butte is mentioned in the BLM’s plan because the agency manages the 184-acre site as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. ACEC designation is meant to protect the unique cultural values of the property.

Unique quality
The BLM’s Resource Management Plan goes into some detail about Castle Butte. It says in part, “Although there are numerous known rock art sties in the Northwestern Plains region, many of which are considered eligible to the National Register of Historic Places, site 24YL0418, the complex of rock art at Castle Butte is almost unique in the quality and concentration of artwork, particularly for the early historic time period. Panels at the site are believed to be biographical in character and to actually document events in the lives of 18th and 19th century Northwestern Plains horse nomads.

“Castle Butte is one of a handful of sites in the Northwestern Plains which show a range of rock art styles dating over a long period of time. Examples of Native American art styles dating from around AD 1100 to the fur trade period have been identified on the site, as well as historic EuroAmerican graffiti dating from 1874 to the present. The rich concentration of pecked, incised, and more rarely, painted motifs of a variety of styles in a relatively small area has resulted in some panels which show superimposing of elements. This is an important key to the relative dating of the various styles.

“Some of the panels at Castle Butte can also be directly associated with adjacent buried archaeological deposits which can be dated through the use of radiocarbon dating techniques. This situation increases the scientific value of the site immensely. Site 24YL0760, an adjacent multiple component camp site, is closely associated with the rock art panels and probably was used by the persons who created the rock art at Castle Butte. Projectile points recovered from the surface of the site show that occupation occurred throughout the period during which the rock art was created.”

Rock search
Hoping to see some of the images — which the Internet shows depicting an elk, a native woman and a battle scene — I set out last week with a BLM map of the Hysham area and a warm coat. Spring is the best time to explore Eastern Montana, before the sun raises the temperature to the “Bake” setting, while snakes and ticks are still hibernating and mud and snow block the high country. This early in the season, though, visitors do miss the greening of the prairie, as well as the blossoms. It’s a tradeoff because once the flowers bloom, the snakes, ticks and flies are certain to be out.

The butte is easy to find. Take the Bundy Bridge Road past Pompeys Pillar and turn right on Castle Butte Road. Follow that past the radio towers, staying to the left, and through a few more right-angled jogs in the road and you arrive at the base of the butte. A parking area on the south end is the jumping off point.

From the parking area, you’re on your own to choose which route to ascend the rock fortress. An outer wall about 12-feet tall provides the first impediment to the top. Find a way past that — maybe by scaling a narrow kneescraping notch — and you can walk around or up and over the fortress’s inner walls. At its highest point the butte is only 3,584 feet in elevation. Still, that’s more than 200 feet above the prairie below.

The butte terminates at its south end, arcing back to the north and west with saddles between the rock uplifts. Along its sweep, modern graffiti is a lot easier to find than any historic pictographs. It seems every other person who visits the site is inspired to carve their name into the soft sandstone – an illegal act. One person even scaled 20 feet up a vertical side of the rock to etch their name.

Seeing the beauty
Luckily, the natural beauty of Castle Butte far outweighs the distraction of the carved names. The rocks vary in shape and texture. Some look like large dollops of smooth ice cream. One flat tabletop slab was brightened by splashes of orange lichen. Another rock slab showed ripples frozen in its surface, the petrified remains of what may have been the edge of an ancient sea or stream.

On the cliff sides, the layers of rock are revealed providing a window into the area’s geologic past. The thick bands of sandstone were likely laid by large rivers and deltas carrying silt from mountains to the west to an inland sea to the east roughly 65 million years ago.

Atop one of the castle’s towers, a hole had been weathered into the rock large enough to hold half a huddled human. Along the edge of one cliff, a large nest – probably a golden eagle’s – clung to the rock. No eagle couple was around, though, just the occasional flushing rock pigeons.

While looking across the surrounding landscape, it was fun to think back 200 years to when the grasslands were dotted with large herds of migrating buffalo. The Yellowstone River at Pompeys Pillar was well known as a crossing point for animals and humans, a gap in the high riverside cliffs. Castle Butte would have undoubtedly offered a great vantage point for a historic hunter to plan a stalk, as well as to locate friends or enemies on the move north to the Musselshell River, or south to the Yellowstone River valley.

Despite walking over, around and up many of the cliffs, I saw only one pictograph left by those long-ago travelers, and then only after walking past it the first time. It appeared to be a lone rifle, not more than 6 inches tall. Other scratches nearby were indecipherable.

Although seeing more pictographs would have added to the adventure, climbing around on the rocks, investigating the site and taking in the vast views were reward enough. Plus, not finding the relics gives me a reason to return to this remote region of the Eastern Montana plains for another exploration.

No comments yet.

Add a comment