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home : columns : columns February 6, 2016


5/21/2013 2:02:00 PM
Black Butte trails "open for business"
Hikers near the summit of Black Butte on a recently rerouted section of new trail. Mt. Jefferson is visible in the distance. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
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Hikers near the summit of Black Butte on a recently rerouted section of new trail. Mt. Jefferson is visible in the distance. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

By Craig Eisenbeis


People keep asking me if the Black Butte Trail is free of snow. The short answer is "yes." In fact, when I was up there a couple of weeks ago, only the slightest remnants of snow remained. Just a few years ago, during what would be the equivalent of next week, I was forced to clamber over extensive snowfields to reach the summit.

Guide books list the trail as open from July to October, but there is no need to wait. One thing to keep in mind this year, is that there are now two "official" options for scaling the 6,436-foot landmark cinder cone.

For many years, the vast majority of Black Butte climbers have used the traditional mid-mountain trailhead that starts at about the 4,800-foot level for a four-mile round trip to the summit. As of last September, however, the Forest Service established a new trailhead and trail using portions of an existing route and former logging road segments to carve out a newly sanctioned official trail starting at the base of the conical little mountain.

As a result, hikers looking for the "total" Black Butte experience can follow the new trail, which winds upward through an additional three miles of pine forest (each way) and an additional 1,600 vertical feet. This alternative hike brings the round trip to a grand total of 10 miles and a whopping 3,200+ vertical feet of climbing opportunity.

The new route is very well defined and easy to follow. Signage is excellent and, at present, that lower trail has been brushed out better than some of the upper trail. Remember to check for ticks; it's that season.

The new trailhead was constructed along the Camp Sherman Road, just beyond the turnoff for the Metolius Headwaters and the lower campgrounds. Additionally, a couple hundred yards of completely new trail were added to tie the lower trail to the existing trailhead at the mid-mountain point. The lower trail now comes in by the parking lot picnic table at the end of the access road. A new permanent toilet facility was also installed last year.

The new trail is a dedicated hiker-only trail. All of the lower trail lies in the forest, and much of the route is shaded. The first portion is a fairly gentle uphill grade that becomes steeper as it approaches the mid-mountain trailhead. That steeper section is also home to a stand of old incense cedar trees. One especially scenic tree is an ancient, extremely large cedar that is mostly snapped off. Still, it continues to grow and is producing new tops.

The upper trail to the summit, of course, is one of the iconic Central Oregon hiking experiences and offers one of the most easily accessed panoramic views anywhere in the area. Black Butte Ranch lies spread out like a relief map at its southern base. The Sisters, Broken Top, and all our other local mountains float above the near horizon. To the north, Camp Sherman and the Metolius River are visible, with Mt. Jefferson capping it all. Plus, on a clear day, you can see Mt. Hood and even Mt. Adams, in Washington.

The mid-mountain trailhead can be reached by motor vehicle. It's the right choice for those with limited time or energy. Most of the first mile from the upper trailhead is through a shaded forest, and the Forest Service has placed a few marker posts identifying some of the forest flora.

Just because the upper route is shorter doesn't mean that it's easy. It is a very steep hike; but a reasonably fit hiker can achieve the summit in about an hour. If you're not that fit, just take your time. Always carry plenty of water.

The second mile of the upper trail breaks out into the open and is exposed all along the south side of the butte. Traversing this section can be very, very hot during the heat of the day, so a morning departure is a smart move.

As the trail nears the summit, it curls around the east side of the butte to the north; and this is where, in other years, you might have expected to encounter some snow at this time of the year. Once the tail wraps around the top of the butte, the Forest Service lookout tower becomes visible; and the summit is only a few minutes away. The trail in this area was also revised, just last year, to consolidate multiple user trails and direct traffic away from the lookout tower.

The current tower is the latest generation of Black Butte lookout stations that began in 1910 with an 18-foot-high platform in the trees. The lookouts lived in tents, and the site was linked by telephone to the ranger's office in 1912. The still-existing cupola building was constructed in 1924 as both a viewing platform and living quarters.

In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps built an 85-foot tower that stayed in active use for 56 years until it was condemned in 1990, at which time the ancient cupola was pressed back into service. The present tower was completed in 1994. The 1934 tower fell under a heavy snow-and-ice load in December of 2001. The "new" trail follows much of the same route used by the CCC to construct the 1934 tower.

To reach the upper trailhead, take Highway 20 west from Sisters for six miles. Turn right onto Road 11, the Green Ridge Road, at Indian Ford Campground. Stay on the road for 3.8 miles, and watch for the Black Butte Trailhead sign. Turn left, and the trailhead is another 5.2 miles on a gravel road.

The road is in good shape for the first four miles. At that point, the road makes a very sharp bend to the right. Ignore the tempting, better road that continues straight, and take the hard right curve. From there, the road gets rough but is still passable for passenger cars. The parking area is about a mile ahead. An annual pass or a $5 day-use fee is required. Fee payment envelopes are available on-site.

In addition to a more challenging hike, an advantage to starting at the new, lower trailhead is the lack of a parking fee. This new trailhead and parking lot are free and located just off Forest Road 1430. To reach it, turn right at the fork in the Camp Sherman Road (Road 14) about 2.6 miles off Highway 20. After only a couple hundred yards, take the first right onto 1430, then take the first right again into the trailhead parking lot.









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