Black Butte is a near perfect volcanic peak rising 6,436 feet above sea level, situated on the eastern edge of the Cascade Range and rising more than 3,000 feet above the Central Oregon high desert. Its distinct shape can be spotted from countless places in Central Oregon. I’d always wanted to hike it, summit it, run it, own it. I got that chance this past Memorial Day weekend.
We spent the weekend with friends at Indian Ford campground, near Camp Sherman, about 15 miles north of Black Butte. Though billed as a forest service campground with minimal amenities, it had everything we needed: Running water, a place to poo, and lots of quiet. Funny how often life boils down to the basics.
The campsite was situated along the Metolius River to our west, and shadowed by Green Ridge, a long, geologic formation rising about 1,000 feet above the valley, to the east. If you were to look at it from a bird’s eye view, it would appear that Green Ridge was the top of an exclamation point, with Black Butte being the round point at the bottom.
Day One: Black Butte Summit
On the first day, we drove from our campground almost all the way around and up Black Butte to the trailhead. The 30-mile drive took us briefly onto Highway 22, heading east before turning north onto Green Ridge Road (Forest Service road NF-11), which bordered to the east of Black Butte. A well maintained gravel road split off from NF-11 and spiraled its way counter-clockwise up Black Butte. Several switchbacks later, we found ourselves at the start of a very rocky, questionably primitive “road” that went on for about 1/2 mile, before emptying out onto a much smoother dirt parking lot. We’d arrived at the Black Butte summit trailhead.
Mapping the route showed the hike to be “just” 1.8 miles to the summit. It didn’t, however show almost 1,600 feet of elevation gain. We set out with our families and made our way carefully up to the top. The path was wide with many turnouts; This was helpful as it was well traveled with dozens of hikers each way. Many hikers brought their dogs. Everyone looked to be having a good time despite plenty of heavy breathing on the way up.
The route reminded me a bit of Saddle Mountain, in the Coast Range near Seaside, which has almost the same elevation gain, though spread out over 2.8 miles, and not just 1.8. As with that hike, about halfway up the trail on Black Butte, dense trees gave way to more open hillsides, so you could take in the view.
And what a breathtaking view it is. Looking around, we realized we could literally see for dozens, if not 100 miles in every direction.
As we reached the summit, the air was noticeably cooler. No wonder – we were higher than Timberline Lodge, and fresh snow was still falling in the Cascade mountains to the west!
At the top of Black Butte are three buildings: The earliest fire lookout tower, built in 1923; Next to it, a private residence for the Forest Service worker manning the tallest building, the current lookout tower, constructed in 1995.
Rick and I did what any Deschutes Brewing fan would do and cracked open two Black Butte Porters right there on the summit, and framed a vain selfie with Mount Washington in the background.
The private residence for the lone Forest Service worker up here has a… nice… back… yard… Wow.
On our descent, I noted the burnt forest on the north side of Black Butte. It was from a large burn in 2009. The white, ghostly forest still stands, underbrush regrown.
At our return to the parking lot, we saw a trail sign towards the far southern corner of the parking lot, indicating a trail down to the Lower Butte Trail Loop. What was this? Rick and I decided to come back and see if we could make it all the way from the bottom of the butte, to the top, the next day.
Day Two: The Upper (and Lower) Black Butte Trails
With spotty data coverage and poorly marked maps we acquired from the Sherman Camp store, Rick and I headed back to the eastern flank of Black Butte. We found a large, gravel parking lot just across the street from one of the connecting trail roads.
Black Butte has two trails that encircle it, sort of, mostly, kind of. They criss-cross a few times as you go around the butte. Both maps and obscure blog posts informed us at some point, they would connect us up to the main trailhead parking lot, where we’d been at the day before.
Like most roads on the butte, it was closed to traffic, but human footprints and horse poop told us the trails were not off-limits to foot traffic. So we headed up. The trail was dusty, reddish soil with patches of small gravel, pine cones here and there, and an occasional pile of horse poop.
We started our journey on the east side of Black Butte. We took the Upper Trail loop around to the south side of Black Butte. Several small intersections of old forest service roads, now defunct, but well maintained in the sense that they were completely passable and no obstacles or random brush in the way.
The views were stunning.
On the south slope, closing in on 4,500 feet elevation, we finally hit upon a series of switchbacks in the roads, all of which dead-ended into overgrowth. We tried going around it, only to realize the old forest service roads had literally ended, leaving us with dense forest land, and steep, pine- cone and needle covered slopes. We had no choice but the turn around, a mere 1/2 mile from what our maps showed to the be trailhead. The research I’ve done since then seems to show that the path up to the trailhead could have been found if we’d continued on the Lower loop for another mile or two.
Without further options, we turned out and headed back to the parking lot. It was a nice outing. The quality of the trail was incredible in many places, with us pushing an easy sub 8-minute pace down portions of the butte. A frosty beverage in nearby Sisters awaited us as we cooled down and then bought some groceries before returning to camp.
Day Three: Green Ridge
I was intrigued by the eagle’s eye view I had of Green Ridge from our summit up Black Butte. I’d looked over the trail maps we’d acquired from Camp Sherman. There seemed to be a well-connected network of trails on the north side of Black Butte, wedged between its flank and the slope up to Green Ridge.
Camp was breaking, and I was up against the gun as I headed out that morning. The air was a crisp, mid-40’s. I knew as soon as the sun crested above Green Ridge, the valley would heat up and fast. I was right. I parked at the Headwaters of the Metolius River. From there, it was a few hundred feet up and across the road to reach the trailhead, a modestly marked sign and narrow dirt path cut through the sagebrush.
It was a calm rise up to the top. The air, as I’d noted throughout our weekend stay, was thick with the smell of fresh evergreen. The air, though at elevation, was rich in oxygen and I didn’t have any difficulty breathing, even on the steep portions of the trail.
I’d had this notion in my head, looking at topographical maps, that the ridge line trail would offer sweeping views of the valley below. While it gave only glimpses, I think the fact I was the only person on the ridge that morning made it special all the same.
I made it approximately three miles up the trail and along the ridge line, before I had to turn back. The well-marked path crossed a few quiet dirt roads, gave way to a wide-open, grass-covered forest floor, finally dead-ending up against a fenced horse pasture. I tried finding an alternate route, but realized it was probably time to turn around.
The return route was rewarding on many levels. The path was immediately familiar, and Black Butte loomed quietly in front of me as I first headed South, towards the downward slope and back to the parking lot.
There are now several trails I want to explore, and know that in time, I will be back to fully explore the Metolius, Green Ridge, and Black Butte to their fullest extent.