The Oregon Buttes, near South Pass in Wyoming, were landmarks for westward-traveling pioneers. Oregon Trail pioneers recognized the Oregon Buttes as the halfway point of their journey.
West Oregon Butte, the lowest and most remote of the three (there are some lower ones south of West Oregon Butte, but they are more like rugged extensions of it than separate buttes), is on the Continental Divide and is one of a few “triple divide” summits in the Rocky Mountain West. Rainfall on it runs west to the Pacific, east to the Atlantic, or into the vast Great Divide Basin, where it goes nowhere except into the thirsty ground. West Oregon Butte has the smallest summit of the three-- the others have broad, flat tops-- but it is wooded (great views are easy to find, though).
Although a desert-and-sage sea surrounds it, West Oregon Butte and its neighbors are semi-moist islands. Limber pines grow on some of the slopes and seem wildly out of place considering the setting. Elk and mountain lions even survive here, confined to these tiny ecosystems. Birds of prey, including golden eagles, are common.
Below the slopes, the jaws of the desert await. Where the ground is not an expanse of sagebrush, it is riddled with clay badlands that turn to mud when it rains and make for treacherous, exhausting footing even when dry.
From up top, there are views of the other Oregon Buttes, nearby Continental Peak and the Honeycomb Buttes, the vast emptiness of the Great Divide Basin, and, to the north, the snowcapped summits of the Wind River Range.
The buttes are in the Jack Morrow Hills section of the Great Divide Basin and are the centerpieces of the Oregon Buttes Wilderness Study Area, which has been recommended by the BLM for wilderness status.
Distance to summit: 2 miles
Total elevation gain (approximate): 1000’
Difficulty: Class 2
From the parking area described in the next section, hike up the closed road. It soon narrows and becomes just a path, and sometimes it is not wide enough to keep you from scraping your legs against the sagebrush (wear long pants unless it is really hot). This first section is very steep; in less than half a mile, you gain about 550’ as you reach the northern (lower) summit of North Oregon Butte.
Hike southwest through a burn area until you reach the southwestern rim of this part of the butte; a trail, sometimes hard to see, makes the going easier. In summer, the unburned areas may be covered with blooming bitterroots.
At the rim, find a high saddle connecting to the higher part of North Oregon Butte. The drop and climb only add about 110’. Now hike across the highpoint of the mountain and start gradually descending southwest. As West Oregon Butte comes into view, look for a saddle connecting the two peaks and then find a use trail leading down the ridge to it.
The saddle is at about 8200’. The trail continues along the north and west sides of West Oregon Butte, but do not follow it; it does not lead to the summit. Instead, hike up the very steep slopes (300’ in 0.2 mi-- that’s a slope of 1500’ per mile) to the wooded summit. There are open outcrops and cliffs nearby that afford excellent views.
At South Pass on WY 28 (do not confuse this spot with the interpretive pullout marked “South Pass” that is a little west of the actual pass), turn south onto Oregon Buttes Road. When dry, this road is suitable for most vehicles, but when wet, it can be impassable even if you have 4wd.
Drive almost nine miles (my trip meter gave me 8.8) and notice an unmarked 4wd road on the right. If you are in a passenger car, park here or drive as far as you feel comfortable doing-- the road is steep, maybe too steep for a lot of cars, and it is a little rough in spots, but it is not that bad assuming you have the power and traction to climb it. Anyone with high clearance and at least all-wheel drive should have no trouble driving the remaining 0.8 mi to a barrier at the edge of the wilderness study area.
Red tape and Camping
Nothing beyond respecting vehicle restrictions and the occasional stretch of private property.
A word of caution, though-- have a good spare and enough food and water to spend at least one extra night out if you have weather or mechanical problems. This part of the Great Divide Basin does not see a lot of traffic, and you are likely going to have to hike the nine miles back to South Pass if you need help (just east of the pass, there is a rest area and store, though I don’t know if that outpost is open year-round).
No campgrounds out here, but you can camp pretty much anywhere. Avoid washes and other low places in case of flash flooding.