cupola-style fire lookout, built in 1923, stands sentry atop Black
Photo by William Sullivan
up Black Butte
Central Oregon volcanic cone with two fire lookouts
the Hike: Plunked in the midst of the Central Oregon plateau,
Black Butte looks like a misplaced mountain. A steep but view-packed
trail climbs 1.9 miles to the panoramic summit, gaining 1,600 feet
of elevation. The last portion of this route is difficult enough
that it is not generally recommended for hikers with children.
it's surprising how many kids enjoy the climb because they view
it as a challenge.
A moderate, 3.6-mile loop to the headland's tip gains 900 feet of
Open July through October.
There: Drive Highway 22 west of Sisters 5.5 miles (or east of
Santiam Pass 13.5 miles) to Indian Ford Campground, near milepost
95. Turn north onto paved Green Ridge Road 11. After 3.8 miles,
turn left onto gravel Road 1110 for 5.1 miles to a parking area
at the road's end.
A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park here. The pass costs
$5 per day or $30 per season. It can be purchased at a ranger station,
an outdoor store or at the trailhead fee box.
Tips: From the trailhead at road's end, the path climbs steadily
through a forest of orange-barked old-growth ponderosa pine. The
golf courses of Black Butte Ranch appear as miniature meadows in
the forest far below.
1.1 mile, the trail crosses a treeless slope that's white in June
with the blooms of serviceberry bushes. Expect other wildflowers,
too: big yellow balsamroot, purple larkspur, and red paintbrush.
the path climbs sharply - a hot, dusty stretch that disqualifies
this hike as an easy trip. The trail gains the butte's broad, eastern
ridge amidst wind-stunted whitebark pines and follows the ridge
up to the top.
not attempt to climb or enter the lookout structures. The log cabin
is the residence of the modern lookout tower's staff; respect their
privacy. And bring your own drinking water, as the staff has none
to spare. They diligently collect snow each spring and allow it to
melt, filling a concrete cistern.
Black Butte's unusual placement east of the High Cascades makes it
ideal as a fire lookout site. In 1910 one of Oregon's earliest fire
detection structures was built here: a simple "squirrel's nest" platform
wedged between two
adjacent treetops. That original lookout is gone, but Black Butte
has collected a variety of other lookout structures since then: an
intact cupola-style building from 1923, the ruins of a collapsed 1934
tower, and a modern 62-foot tower from 1995. In 1980 a one-room log
cabin was constructed in Sisters, disassembled, and flown by helicopter
to Black Butte's summit as living quarters for the fire lookout staff.
As you drive toward the flats of Central Oregon toward this symmetrical
volcano, you might well wonder why it erupted here. The more famous
High Cascades peaks formed along a fault that has been leaking lava
for millions of years. But Black Butte grew along a different, parallel
crack to the east. This fault also uplifted Green Ridge's scarp
to the north, leaving the Metolius Valley as a long trough.
Butte began to erupt quite recently, perhaps only 20,000 years ago.
It quickly built up a 3,000-foot pile of cinders, one of the tallest
such cones in the state. The eruption also buried the Metoilius
River, creating Black Butte Ranch's swampy meadows on one side of
the mountain and Metolius Springs on the other, where the river