Black Butte

1923 cupola-style lookout on Black Butte

  • Moderate (upper trail)
  • 4.4 miles round trip
  • 1560 feet elevation gain
  • Open July through October

  • Moderate (lower trail)
  • 6.2 miles round trip
  • 1750 feet elevation gain
  • Open April through November

Plunked in the midst of the Central Oregon plateau, Black Butte looks like a misplaced mountain. This symmetrical volcano formed before the last Ice Age along the same fault that uplifted Green Ridge’s scarp to the north. The resulting 3000-foot pile of cinders is one of the tallest such cones in the state. The eruption buried the Metolius River, creating Black Butte Ranch’s swampy meadows on one side of the mountain and Metolius Springs on the other, where the river now emerges.

The 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 a cupola-style building from 1923 has survived. Also atop Black Butte are remnants of a collapsed tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, a 62-foot replacement tower from 1995, and a one-room log cabin from 1979. The cabin was constructed in Sisters, disassembled, and flown by helicopter to the butte’s summit to provide the staff with more comfortable quarters. A popular, view-packed trail climbs from an upper trailhead to Black Butte’s summit. A newly reopened lower portion of the Black Butte Trail has lesser views, but is also less steep, less crowded, and less often blocked by snow. For an athletic challenge with 3310 feet of elevation gain, hike both the lower and upper segments. To find the trailhead, drive Highway …

This chapter is an excerpt from 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Central Oregon Cascades.

Black Butte from Central Oregon

The lower trail on Black Butte