Black Butte

Type: D-6 cupola (1923) and 35′ tower (1995)
Status: Cupola is abandoned; Tower is staffed
Elevation: 6,436 feet
Visited: July 16, 2016

See my 2023 post for what has changed since I wrote this post.

Black Butte lookout

After attending the Sand Mountain anniversary celebration at the Fish Lake Historic Site, I decided to go for a hike, so I headed over to Black Butte. A road gets you most of the way to the top, then you have to hike the last two miles. It’s a hot, steep, dusty climb and only the first part is in the trees. Then the trail passes through a long stretch of open shadeless terrain, skirts through the edge of the  2009 Black Butte II burn, and then reaches the summit.

Black Butte lookout

Black Butte Trail

Black Butte

It was, unfortunately, a cloudy day, so views were limited. Mt. Hood:

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood and Green Ridge:

Green Ridge

The Three Sisters:

Cloudy view

Mt. Jefferson:

Mt. Jefferson

Looking southeast out over the flat eastern side of the Cascades:

Down below

There were plenty of golden mantled ground squirrels around. People have clearly been feeding them, unfortunately:

Golden-mantled ground squirrel

The 1923 a D-6 cupola from 1923 is in pretty bad shape:

Old cupola lookout

Fire lookout

Old cupola lookout

The signs you see in the pictures above instruct people to not pry off the shutters and inform people that the nearby cabin has been condemned.

Confusing signage

The cabin in question sits nearby. It was built in 1979 with help from the Young Adult Conservation Corp and served as living quarters for the lookout. It hasn’t been used in quite some time, but the sign telling people not to disturb still stands, which is odd.

Old sign

The cabin is in bad shape. It’s too bad the Forest Service can’t fix it up, instead of having to condemn it.

Old cabin

Old cabin

Old cabin

UPDATE: In November 2016 the Forest Service burned down this condemned cabin, stating:

Like other gabled end structures at lookout points that are exposed to direct weather, the cabin was subject to snow drifts that would persist creating moisture problems. The west side of the cabin began to dry rot and then an infestation of carpenter ants accelerated the deterioration of the west wall to the point that the whole wall would need to be replaced. When viewed from the interior daylight was visible through the wall because of how thin the wall was. Attempts to solve the problem did not work. The 1979 cabin is only 37 years old and holds no significance as it doesn’t fit with a larger national trend, such as the CCC development of fire lookout locations. The cabin also served as a vector for carpenter ants which threatened the cupola, the one historic structure left on Black Butte. This last summer the D-6 Cupola, which is only 1 of 5 left out of 200 built, was covered in hatched carpenter ants. No sign of infestation but it would only be a matter of time with a large colony existing in the 1979 cabin.

We had to remove the non-historic cabin to save the historic cupola. It was in such poor condition there was no way to remove it from the top of Black Butte. The only way to remove it would have been via helicopter and it would never had made it down the hill. Burning it was the safest way to deal with it.

In addition, the structure was becoming a safety nuisance for the public. The building was leaning fairly significantly with the roof sliding off to one end. With the gaps created by the rotting and carpenter ants we were concerned about people going into the structure and it falling on them. We know people were in and around it because they left evidence of their use (items moved around, tagging, etc.). We haven’t let employees into the structure since it was condemned which was about 2011 or 2012.

The 35′ tower that was built in 1995 is staffed in summer. The trail used to go near this tower, but was re-routed in 2011 to decrease disruption to the lookout.

Black Butte lookout


West of Sisters turn north onto Road 11, which is signed for Indian Ford Campground. After 3.7 miles turn left onto Road 1110. The road ends at 5.1 miles, where the trail begins.

More information
Forest Lookouts
Rex’s Forest Fire Lookout Page
National Historic Lookout Register
Panorama Photos


Black Butte has been a lookout site since 1910. According to Historic Fire lookouts on the Deschutes National Forest, “two lookout trees constructed by Forest Ranger Harve Vincent in 1910 are the earliest recorded lookout structures on the butte.” In 1919 a new tree lookout was built, a platform supported by the trunks of four trees. “The remnants of a tree lookout on the butte may be this structure.” I didn’t know about this when I was up there, but here is a 1991 photo from the Forest Service:

Around 1923 a D-6 cupola was built, pictured here in 1942:


Black Butte
Undated photo from USFS

In 1934 the Civilian Conservation Corps built an 82-foot-tall timber tower with an L-6 cab. Again from Historic Fire lookouts on the Deschutes National Forest: “It was estimated that the tower would require over 300 pack loads of materials brought up the four-mile trail; it ended up taking over a thousand. Because many of the timbers were so long, the horses and mules had to be unloaded and reloaded to negotiate some of the switchbacks.” It took 1,491 man hours to assemble and erect the tower, shown below in 1991, by which time it had been condemned due to dry rot and instability. Unlike most lookouts, the hatch from the stairs comes up through the floor of the cabin rather than the catwalk, and access to the catwalk is through a window, rather than a door.

In December 2001 that tower collapsed under heavy snow. The concrete foundation footings from that tower still remain.

Old foundation

There’s a pile of lumber nearby and I wonder if it’s from that 1934 tower.

Old tower

In 1995 a 65′ tower with a 10×10′ cab was built. That is the lookout that is still staffed today:

Black Butte lookout