Barrel Butte is part of a ridge system that lies roughly on a north-south axis, with the west side on national forest land, and the east side as part of the Bighorn Wildlife Management Area. As the state’s third steepest publicly accessible summit, and in a remote area of the Pine Ridge, it provides an excellent opportunity for hiking and scrambling. There are two main rocky buttresses that are the distinguishing characteristics of the butte. According to officials with the state's wildlife management areas, a plane crash many years ago left wreckage in the forest toward the southern end of Barrel Butte.
The west side of Barrel Butte has very steep slopes up to a sheer wall that runs the full length from the north end to where the butte fans out on the south end, with several tree-covered ridges both west and east. The east side also has very steep slopes up to the buttresses, and is almost as sheer, though each buttress has a steeply-sloped break that allows a scramble to the summit. State game department officials maintain that the best access to the southern buttress ridge is to scramble up the southern slopes and hike north along the ridgeline. To view a great off-site aerial photo that shows more of the east side, click here: Barrel Butte Aerial. Certainly, this is perfect habitat for bighorn sheep.
Limited technical climbing might be possible on Barrel Butte, where trees or firm boulders are available for anchors. But, like so many of the buttes, rocks, and small peaks in Nebraska, the rock and soil composition is a combination of sandstone, siltstone, chalky limestone, and volcanic ash. If I were a technical climber, I would hate to have my life depend on an anchor in such “rock”. Of course, this also makes me quite cautious on using small protruding rocks for hand or footholds when scrambling. Caution is definitely warranted here.
UPDATE: Very serious forest fires in September, 2012, have made access to Barrel Butte more dangerous, due to burned tree hazards. Enter this area at your own risk! It will probably take until sometime in the summer of 2013 before tree-clearing and re-growth of grasses will make the area less hazardous.
Red TapeBoth sides of the butte are under different jurisdictions. However, illegal campfires are probably the greatest concern to both. Some local hikers carry firearms because of the growing mountain lion population in this remote area of the Pine Ridge. This is legal, BUT if you choose to carry one, be aware of the hunting seasons and how game wardens see things. For example, carrying a .308 rifle into the wilderness during deer season will likely get you a severe fine if you do not also have a deer hunting license. On the other hand, carrying a .22 mag revolver would not be of concern to any warden.
Camping and Information ResourcesFort Robinson State Park (308) 665-2900
Crawford Chamber of Commerce (308) 665-1817
Chadron State Park (308) 432-6167
Chadron Chamber of Commerce (308) 432-4401
Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area (308) 665-5055 (for questions on the Bighorn WMA)
National Forest Service Office in Chadron (308) 432-0300
Panhandle Trails – western Nebraska Trails & Summits website