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The Rise of North Dakota Climbing

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Dakota Walz works his way up Red Cloud Crack. Photo: Matthew Eckelberg

When you think of North Dakota, rock climbing is not what comes to mind. It’s the third flattest state in the country, right behind Florida and Illinois, but there is rock. Our own staff photographer Andrew Burr called it, perhaps generously, “the Arapiles of North America.” Thanks to a small dedicated crew with a lot of hometown pride, dozens of climbs are sprouting up across the plains and a guidebook is in the works. We spoke to route developer and guidebook author Dakota Walz.

You’re from North Dakota, but you currently live in Colorado. What inspired you to go back and seek out climbing in your home state?

Dakota Walz: After spending so much time climbing in the midwest I learned just how important obscure climbing areas can be to the stranded flatland climber. The idea of being able to facilitate a small oasis in my home state seemed like the appropriate way to return to my homelands on the prairie.

Describe the crags for our readers.

Butte-iful! In a state with a total population smaller than that of a major city, its easy to lose yourself in solitude while climbing any of the sandstone buttes that rise high above the nowhere plains. The various crags offer far more climbing than one would ever expect to find out here. A few routes reach up to a surprising 85+ feet!

Tell us about your favorite route.

The sandstone at Square Butte tends to form in such a fortunate way to resemble desert-style splitters. My favorite crack climb is a dead horizontal, fist-sized roof crack, There and Crack Again (V5). The jaws on this thing are perfectly parallel and unwavering for over 15 feet, at which point the crack shoots straight over a 90 degree lip and quickly tapers to tight finger sizes before topping out after 8 feet. If this rock were accessible here in the front range it would have a line on it every weekend (but what doesn’t, am I right?).

Chris Deal jams his way across There and Crack Again (V5). Photo: Noah Kupcho

What’s the surrounding area like? Is this truly the middle of nowhere?

Close your eyes, clear your mind. You are now in a blank void of existence. You hear a cow calling out in the distance and maybe tractor tires chugging along some unseen gravel road. And wind. Insistent wind gusting over the prairie. What was the question again?

When you top out at places like Chimney Butte you are far and away the tallest point around. As you scan the horizon you can see forever in all directions, but what you won’t see is more than a couple dozen ranches and an oil derrick or two. 

Who do you foresee climbing here? Fargo is still five hours away, it’s not exactly a day trip.

Simply put, the climbers that would have otherwise never been. The people who only get to view rock climbing from the magazines they read at their university wall.

It took me awhile to realize it too, but Fargo isn’t the only city in North Dakota. Unfortunate climbers in places like Bismark, Williston, and Minot now find themselves only two hours away from solid weekend/day trip climbing potential. Heck, Dickinson is close enough to almost all the areas that they could warrant post-work cragging sessions!

How did you even discover these cliffs?

I call it internet exploring. It’s a 3 step process: 

  1. Spend hours and hours and hours neglecting my loving girlfriend in favor of pouring over and cross referencing various satellite maps.
  2. Make a map connecting all the pins that are most likely to yield good discoveries.
  3. Waste hours and hours and hours driving through backcountry roads just to find diddly squat 95% of the time.
Dakota Walz sinks a cam on Gift of Life at Square Butte. Photo: Matthew Eckelberg

Were there signs that anyone had climbed in any of these spots before? Have you been able to locate the history of any routes?

Yes. There was actually a mysterious sport route put up at Sentinel Butte years ago. I’ve tried multiple avenues to contact the folks who put it up, but have never heard anything back. Rock N Road makes mention of some granite boulders outside of Bismark, but in the beta goes on to say it was just a rumor. 

What’s the development process been like? Any major hurdles? I’ve heard the wind can be gnarly.

Development is almost always type two fun. One trip in particular I forgot to bring my safety glasses, so I ended up spending the entire trip blinded by sand and lichen as the wind had its way with the rest of my dignity. 

What’s the future of ND climbing? Is there more potential?

As a developer in the midwest, the search is almost always bleak, but never over. I’m sure that as soon as we get this book published another stacked crag will suddenly sprout up on the plains. 

Square Butte below the Milky Way. Photo: Jonathan Trites

What does the kickstarter help you accomplish?

The kickstarter is essentially a boost to show the North Dakota Department of Tourism that we’re serious about our project and their investment in us. With a grant they’ve awarded us, we’re able to double every dollar donated to the project up to a $2,500. That money is going help support the development of these areas, publishing costs of the guidebook, and will support the newly founded North Dakota Climbers Coalition. 

Tell our readers why they should climb in North Dakota.

I can’t tell someone to fly from California or Kentucky or Colorado to come climb NoDak. I can however tell the starved climbers of the northern plains that an oasis is rising and that we can’t wait to share it with them.

To support North Dakota climbing development and preorder the guidebook, check out the North Dakota Climber’s Coalition Kickstarter.