To anyone who has driven along Highway 55 around Sunnyslope on into Marsing, the way Lizard Butte got its name is obvious: The ancient volcanic vent looks like a resting lizard, complete with a reared head and extended tail.
Directly beneath the black, basaltic rock that is lizard shaped, there is a grassy hill covered in sagebrush that offers a breathtaking view of the Snake River Valley wine region, the Snake River and the Owyhees.
The butte is an important landmark in the area: Marsing’s library is named after it, and annual Easter Sunday services are held at its top. In an area where most of the buttes are volcanic in origin, Lizard Butte is also a window into the area’s geologic history.
“Lizard Butte is interesting. It is essentially a small volcano that is sitting on top of lake sediments. (At one time), most of the Western Snake River Plain was occupied by a lake,” said College of Western Idaho Geology Professor, Ander Sundell.
Sundell explained that Lizard Butte was formed around 1.5 million years ago, when magma beneath the surface encountered groundwater, leading to a steam-driven eruption that burst through the surface. The result was a spatter cone volcano, like those at Craters of the Moon.
The cone-shaped volcano that was formed was almost completely washed out by the Bonneville Flood that took place around 14,500 years ago, Sundell said. Lizard Butte is what remains after the floodwater drained.
The grassy, sagebrush hill part of Lizard Butte is leftover sediment from an ancient body of freshwater known as “Lake Idaho” that also once covered the entire area.
“If you look at the vertical exposure of Lizard Butte, there are black basaltic volcanic rocks sitting on top of light gray to brown siltstone, which are rocks that would be deposited in a lake environment,” Sundell said.
Locals in the Sunnyslope area are passionate about their volcanic landmark. In a book called “My Beloved Sunnyslope,” Pearl “Renz” Kirk writes affectionately about Lizard Butte, and tells the story of people who lived near it and ascribed religious significance to it.
In 1938, a local church group began offering Easter Sunday church services there. Soon, hundreds of people from all around the Treasure Valley made the trek. A tradition that continues today, the service begins with a bugle call and scripture reading shortly after sunrise.
When the church services began to take off, a local man named Dave Ulrich decided that a cross should be erected on the butte as a year-round reminder.
While the first one made of wood burned down shortly after it was put up, a replacement cross was put in its place, constructed of railroad ties and concrete. Kirk describes the community effort that rallied around it.
“(Ulrich) hauled gravel to the base of the Butte, and volunteers carried the gravel, sand and cement to the top of the Butte by a ‘bucket brigade,’” Kirk said.
The distinctive cross is visible from distances all around Lizard Butte. For the week ahead of Easter, it lights up at night thanks to a deal struck with Idaho Power. Marsing Church of the Nazarene, the congregation that currently runs the Easter services, invites people of all faiths to experience the unique observance.
“Join hundreds of people from dozens of churches across the Treasure Valley of Idaho as we celebrate the resurrection,” the church's website states.
Easter church service isn’t the only activity that takes place on Lizard Butte. It is also a popular hiking spot, and a number of weddings have also taken place there, including the matrimony of well-known German filmmaker Wim Wenders who married Nampa-born Ronee Sue Blakley, an academy award-nominated actress and recording artist.