by Bill Schiess
A pair of Golden eagles soared above the fading “R” as they encouraged their two offspring to join them in the hunt. The afternoon heat created air currents conducive to good soaring for other birds as the four are joined by two turkey vultures.
The North Menan Butte, locally called the “R” Mountain, has become more populated with desert critters, birds, flowers and other vegetation since it was declared a national natural landmark (NNL) by the Secretary of Interior in 1980.
The North and South Menan Buttes appear as two pimples on the flat Snake River plain west of Rexburg and just north of the small town of Menan. Formed 10,000 years ago when lava was forced up through the cold Snake River groundwater, they are two of the world’s largest tuff cones and are also the only tuff cones in the United State formed by freshwater. Tuff is hardened volcanic ash that other rocks and materials were trapped in it. As hikers walk across the rock and observe the material, small river rounded sandstones can be seen embedded in the hardened ash.
The South Butte is mostly private land while the larger North Butte is public land controlled by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
As one of eleven NNL in Idaho, the North Butte is closed to all motorized recreational vehicles. It is being preserved for enjoyment of hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders and for the study of the unique plants and geology of this ancient volcano. One of the most interesting plants is the Blazing Star Mentzelia that blooms in the night or cloudy days, but closes during the heat of the day. It usually blooms in late July and early August.
With two trail heads built and maintained by the BLM; users can enjoy the natural wonders of this unique landmark. One trailhead is on the west side with an improved parking lot and toilet facilities while the one on the south is a rough parking lot with room for only a few vehicles.
Trails around the rim of the cone can be an enjoyable early morning and late evening activity for groups or an individual. A trail through the middle of the cone is popular for runners enjoying a hard work out.
Hikers enjoy the different flowers blooming throughout the year. Several types of primrose, lilies, wild onion along with many others dot the harsh landscape popping up wherever there is enough soil to allow them to survive. Visitors are asked to stay on the trails to protect the unique vegetation and to prevent erosion.
A variety of wildlife can be viewed while hiking this national landmark. Both mule and white-tailed deer, elk, moose, lizards, songbirds and snakes are all commonly seen. Care should be taken while hiking during midday as the butte is home of the Western rattlesnake.
Information posted by the BLM cautions about taking water with you when you hike, to watch your footing as it is rocky and can be slippery when it rains and not to disturb wildlife.
As the “R” continues to fade, so will the other scars left by motorized vehicles over the years. Eagles will continue to soar as the land animals will scurry for cover as they are hunted by the birds of prey as visitors enjoy this unique landmark.