What Is A Butte In Geography?

The West Mitten Butte in Monement Valley, Arizona.
The West Mitten Butte in Monement Valley, Arizona.

A butte refers to an isolated hill that is steep with a relatively flat top and vertical sides. Usually, a butte is a bit smaller when you compare it to a mesa, a plateau or a table landform. Butte is a French word that means “Small hill,” and its use is so predominant in the Western United States as well as the Southwest where for the larger hill, mesa is used. Due to their distinct shape, buttes are usually used as landmarks in mountainous regions as well as plains. The two, mesas and buttes, are difficult to differentiate and as a result, geographers use the rule of the thumb which says that a mesa has a top that is wider compared to its height while a butte has a top that is narrower compared to its height.


Buttes are formed through weathering and erosion. This occurs when hard rock is lying over a less resistant rock. Over time, the less resistant rock is eroded and gets worn away while the hard rock above it remains resistant. The hard rock will further protect the underlying soft rock from being eroded by the blowing wind. The hard rock then stands isolated on the less resistant rock. The top is however eroded more by weathering and abrasion, and those pieces fall onto the foot of the hill. This happens continuously, and the top is now narrow than the length is. When the same process happens on a much smaller scale, it forms what is known in geography as a hoodoo.


Some of the notable buttes in the world include Mitten Buttes in the Monument Valley found in Arizona. These two are not only distinctive but also widely recognized. This is because Monument Valley and the said buttes have provided backgrounds in the scenes of many western-themed films. These include seven movies that are directed by John Ford. Another notable butte is the Devils Tower found in northeastern Wyoming. This butte is laccolithic, rather than being composed of sandstone, limestone or any other sedimentary rock, it composes igneous rock.

These other three prominent formations are considered butte or named so although they do not follow the rule of the thumb we said above. They include a collection of five bluffs found in Nebraska which are called Scotts Bluff. The second butte is the Elephant Butte, now an island in New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir and the last one among these formations is Crested Butte that is a mountain in Colorado whose height is 3, 709m (12, 168 ft.).

There are non-flat-topped buttes, in the world and some of the well-known in the United States include South Dakota, Bear Butte, Oregon, Black Butte and the Sutter Buttes that are found in California.

It is not always that buttes are named using the word ‘Butte’ as part of the name. There are cases where buttes have different names like the Courthouse Rock, which is a butte found in California. Similarly, large hills that technically are not buttes also have names that use the word “Butte,” like in the case of Kamiak Butte as well as Chelan Butte, both hills found in Washington State.


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