Monday, June 11, 2018

Black Butte (Oregon)

Black Butte cupola lookout with Three-Fingered Jack and Mount Jefferson
4 miles round trip, 1550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Rough gravel road to trailhead (closed in winter), Northwest Forest Pass required

Black Butte is an extinct stratovolcano on the eastern side of Oregon's Cascade crest with huge views of the chain of Cascade volcanoes in central Oregon. Its nearly perfectly symmetrical cone makes it easily recognizable throughout the Bend area, its position east of the crest gives it a sunnier position and allows the trail to melt out early relative to other areas of similar elevation, and its offset location from the main chain of volcanoes gives a unique vantage point up and down the range. As the road to the trailhead takes visitors to just shy of 4900 feet, this is a relatively easy hike to reach the summit of a prominent 6436-foot tall volcano. The summit is crowned with not one but two fire lookouts for aficionados searching out those structures.

I hiked up Black Butte at the end of a three-day May trip to Bend, Oregon, making it an early stop along my drive back to Seattle. From Bend, I took US 20 north through Sisters. After passing Sisters, US 20 headed directly towards Black Butte, which rose straight in front of the road. At the sign for Indian Ford Campground, I made a right turn onto Forest Service Road 11, a paved road which I followed north for a few miles through a gorgeous ponderosa pine forest. At the junction with Forest Service Road 1110, a sign indicated that the Black Butte Lookout was to the left; I took the left turn here and began driving up a good gravel road. The road ascended the butte by wrapping partially around it; at the second switchback, the road went from a good gravel road to a rough gravel one with plenty of rocks and a few potholes, which continued for the last mile of the drive. Trailhead parking was somewhat limited but there was space to park alongside the road for a distance leading out from the trailhead. On Memorial Day, parking was packed.

From the trailhead, the trail made an immediate turn and began heading to the northwest through a forest of stately ponderosa pines. The grade was moderate and steady. At about two-thirds of a mile, the trail made a sharp switchback; shortly after the switchback, tree cover began to thin out as the trail entered the more open upper slopes of the butte. At about a mile, the trail fully came out into open manzanita slopes. The tower lookout atop the summit of Black Butte was visible above.

Ponderosa pine forest
Lookout from the trail
Open slopes meant views: as I ascended along the trail past blooming patches of desert parsley, I  soaked in the views of the Three Sisters (specifically North and South Sister here; Middle Sister was fully blocked by North Sister), Broken Top, Mount Washington, and Three Fingered Jack. These open south-facing slopes were quite hot: be sure to bring plenty of water if you're hiking this trail on a nice summer day, as there are no water sources on the mountain itself.

Three Fingered Jack and the trail up Black Butte
Broken Top, Three Sisters, and Mount Washington
A few steep ascents punctuated the otherwise steady uphill as the trail began to wrap around the eastern slopes of the butte, passing through a burn area and providing plenty of views of US 20 below, Newberry Volcano in the distance, and nearby landmarks such as Smith Rock. As the trail gradually wrapped around to the north side of Black Butte, an extraordinary sight unfolded: first Mount Adams in Washington State popped into view, faint in distance; then came Mount Hood and then finally Mount Jefferson with its spire summit.

Jefferson, Hood, Adams
The final stretch of trail was a little flatter as I traversed the north slopes of the mountain just downhill of the summit. The tower fire lookout, still in use today, was visible just uphill; unfortunately it's closed to the public. The trail came to the broad summit between the two lookouts; I headed west along the summit ridge towards the old cupola lookout.

New fire lookout
The older of the two fire lookouts atop Black Butte has a unique cupola architecture; it has stood atop Black Butte for almost a century now. Entry into the lookout is prohibited, but the structure's unique features are still easy to admire from the outside.

Cupola lookout
From the lookout, there is an excellent view of the line of volcanoes that make up the Cascades. Adams, Hood, Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Washington, North Sister, South Sister, and Broken Top formed an orderly line from north to south along the western horizon.

Mount Jefferson
Broken Top and the Sisters
Many hikers were at the summit, but luckily there was room to spread out and enjoy the views. I gained a certain satisfaction while at the summit knowing that I had climbed both Adams and South Sister, the stratovolcanoes anchoring the two ends of the view.

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