Luckily for summer hikers, Black Butte Road/NF-99/NF-1110 provides access half-way up this behemoth cinder cone to the summit trailhead, making the 1.9-mile, 1,560-foot summer ascent relatively easy.
This access road is buried in snow during the winter months, however, which makes Black Butte a quiet giant for nearly half of the year. Yet the still of winter is the most rewarding time of year for an ascent to the butte's 6,436 foot summit, with complete serenity and all of the surrounding snow-capped peaks generally visible.
In the winter there are two primary ways to make it to the top, and either way you’re looking at roughly 2,700 feet of elevation gain. For the first route, park at the turn-off for SW Black Butte Road and ski or snowshoe up the main access road and summer hiking trail. This route is gradual, but it's a full 14 miles round trip. For the second route, head straight up the east slope. This route is 4 miles round trip, but it is unmarked and there is no official trail. If you would like to accomplish this adventure in one day, the second route is strongly recommended.
Come prepared, as the eastern approach to the top is no casual adventure. Standing alone in the desert plateau, east of the younger peaks in the Cascades, Black Butte has an impressive prominence of over 3,000 feet, so pack well and start your climb early. Park on the side of Green Ridge Road at any convenient spot (there is no marked winter trail), an start your slog through sometimes dense foliage by heading straight up. Passing through the lightning-struck and often black forest of ponderosa pines, lodgepole pines and California incense cedar, you will eventually make it to the butte's summit and the newer of its two fire lookout towers* will come into view. The spectacular panoramic views of the Cascades are the dominating presence, however. On a clear day you'll have views that encompass Mount Adams to the north, Lookout Mountain and the Ochocos to the east, and the Three Sisters, Broken Top, and Newbury Crater to the south.
* Black Butte's expansive vistas and prominence east of the Cascades have long made it an ideal location for spotting wildfires. Most noticeable is its newest 62-foot tower built in 1995. The first, built as early as 1910 and later replaced in 1923, still stands today. A third tower was built in 1934 and remains in ruins after its collapse.
Note: Be sure to have a map, GPS and/or compass in hand to ensure a safe return on your descent as no marked trail exists in the winter.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.