The nice thing about climbing Black Butte is that the road puts you halfway up the mountain before you have to start walking. What would be an eight-mile round trip from the base becomes a four-mile round trip – which is doable between breakfast and lunch, or between lunch and dinner. Or, like my hike recently, between dinner and dark.
It takes only half an hour to reach the Black Butte trailhead from Sisters – which was fortunate because the sun was already dropping toward the cloudy horizon. The gravel road up the Butte is in good condition. Only the last half-mile or so require a bit of obstacle-dodging for the normal sedan.
The trailhead is wide and accommodating – it clings to the side of the mountain, but it has enough space for about twenty cars, an outhouse, and a picnic table. A $5.00 fee/vehicle is required, unless you have one of the accepted Forest Passes. These can be purchased directly from the FivePine front desk.
Even though the mileage of this hike is relatively short, it’s not traveled quickly. The first mile climbs steadily through Ponderosa Pines and through undergrowth. The second mile leaves the taller trees behind and climbs more steeply through vegetation stunted by wind, elevation, and recent fires. The angle of ascent becomes so severe in places, it’s almost impossible not to plod slowly, one foot after the other. It’s okay though, because this is where the vistas really begin to open up…and a photo-op is a good excuse to rest.
The trail hugs the western slope of the Butte most of the way up. The perspective you get on Black Butte Ranch is dizzyingly high. The Cascades are in view from Three-Fingered Jack southward as far as the horizon allows. The highway back to Sisters appears as an odd, immense slice through the forest floor.
Ascending the western slope means you’ll get shade if you’re hiking in the morning, and sun if you’re hiking in the afternoon. The time of day determines what kind of lighting effects you’ll get to experience. My particular time of day gave me some fun patterns and effects not only to photograph, but also to be a part of.
When I reached Black Butte’s summit. I tried to push my way through the snowdrifts to the watchtower, but I lost the trail and started getting snow in my boots.
I found a way to the watchtower via the west side of the summit – less snow on that side, of course. There’s some history up there, which you can read about on informative plaques.
The structures on top are anchored to the ground with steel cables because of the wind. The cables make frightening music as the wind vibrates them.
I walked toward the north edge of the summit – the summit is over 100 yards long – and was eventually blocked by the private residence of whoever’s on fire-lookout duty at any given time. It is a charming, weather-beaten cabin with stacks of firewood nearby – made me feel like I was in Switzerland, on the rim of a deep valley, and the mist is rolling in…
When the sun set, the mist above me and the earth around me shone brilliant reddish-gold. Unfortunately, my camera battery had died by then.
The descent of Black Butte was steep and quad-straining, and dangerous in the gathering dark. I twisted my ankle twice, but reached the trailhead safely otherwise. The entire trip, including the drive back to Sisters, took only 4 hours.
If you want to climb Black Butte, make sure to take water, since there is none on the trail. Directions to the trailhead can be acquired at the Forest Service office or at our front desk.