If you’ve ever driven on Highway 5 through Northern California, you know Black Butte. Despite Mt Shasta dominating the view from a distance, when you’re in between the two cities of Mt Shasta and Weed, Black Butte takes over. It rises steeply from right next to the highway, drawing attention away from its much larger neighbor.
I’ve always wanted to hike Black Butte. There is a trail that goes all the way to the summit and we tried to hike it years ago. Unfortunately we didn’t have the correct driving directions to the trailhead and got lost in the maze of dirt 4×4 roads trying to find the trail. Other times, the trail (and approach roads) were under too much snow to even consider the hike. With this year’s low snow, however, Christmas morning ended up being a perfect time to hike to the summit of Black Butte.
Typically under snow at this time of year, the trail to the summit of Black Butte is about 2.5 miles one-way with 1900 ft of gain. The trailhead is on the northeast side of the Butte and driving directions are available on Black Butte’s summitpost entry. The roads can be confusing, but the directions made sense. Having GPS waypoints pulled from Google Satellite view didn’t hurt.
From the trailhead the trail climbs steadily on one long switchback around the north side of the butte. The amount of tree cover was unexpected since from a distance the Butte appears to be just a large pile of dark volcanic rock. The packed dirt trail meant that it was easy to get a good pace going on the initial ascent.
During this first long switchback the occasional talus field breaks up the hike through the trees. Large channels of volcanic rocks seem to have obliterated any chance of trees surviving in their path, likely where rock tumbles down from higher on the mountain. The nicely built trail continued through these rock piles, though it lost the nice smooth packed dirt ground of the path through the trees.
After about a mile and a half of steady climbing the trail finally switchbacks out of the trees and into a field of larger talus. As we climbed, the trees gave way to much more rock.
The final switchbacks were small and tight and moved back and forth across the north side of the highest plug on the top of the butte. The grade was still just as steady as the start, making this a quite enjoyable hike. The 1900 ft climb went by quite quickly thanks to the great trail.
Near the summit the trail faded into the rock. The final approach is up to the hiker, and I found myself a nice little ~10 ft class 2-3 scramble to get on the summit proper. I’m sure there is an easier way but I had to have a little fun after the easy trail!
There is an old foundation on the summit, I’m guessing it was a fire lookout of some sort at some time. The reason to climb this peak is the view from the summit. Mt Shasta dominates the entire eastern view, and it feels like you could reach over and tap the summit, despite it being almost 8000 ft higher and 8.5 miles away as the crow flies.
To the west, Mt Eddy blocks the view into the Marble Mountains wilderness. The sharp outcroppings of Castle Crags are visible on a far ridge to the south, and highway 5 cuts right through the middle. On a clear day you can see all the way to Mount McLoughlin in Oregon to the north.
Bottom line? If you want to catch some killer Mt Shasta scenery without actually climbing Mt Shasta, try Black Butte. This hike takes less than half a day and is pretty quick to get to from the highway. Break up your long drive along the awfulness that is highway 5 with this excellent leg stretcher!
In and Out dayhike on trail. Because of the lack of shade and the hot rocks this trail is best done in spring or fall when temperatures are cool but the snow is clear.
5.12 miles round trip
+/- 1820 ft
Trailhead and Permit Notes:
There are no permits required for day hiking Black Butte. Access is via a set of dirt Forest Roads, and directions are available at the National Forest link below. The trailhead parking area is small.