Sunday, July 9, 2023

An Unsung Cascade Gem: Maxwell Butte

Here is something we can't say very often: this hike has some of the most outstanding views in the Cascades, the trailhead is easy to find and can be accessed with an ordinary car, the trail is easy to follow and fairly well maintained, and you are likely to meet few other people on your hike. 

So what's the catch? Well, there isn't one, really, except for the elevation gain of over 2500 feet, but you have over four miles to do it in. Oh, and there will likely be quite a bit of blow down across the trail, but if you can handle a steep hike of almost 10 miles round trip, you will probably be fine climbing over that, too. And at over 6000' elevation, you could possibly encounter snow early in the summer. Or if it's warm, fierce, bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Or maybe both. Also some crumbly footing in the more volcanic areas. 

Wild Iris
But that could be said for many of the best hikes in the Cascades, so it is a mystery to us why this trail gets passed by so often. If you are a mountain hiker, we highly recommend it; allow extra time for photography, as well as a pause by the lovely little lakes (yes, lakes, two of them). This hike is at its best during clear weather, as the panoramic views are your compensation for all of that climbing!

Bear Grass
The trail is accessed from Maxwell Sno-Park, a little over 30 miles past Detroit on Highway 22 if you are coming from the Willamette Valley. Drive to the end of the parking lot to find a small, but serviceable, dirt/gravel road; other than a few potholes, this road is adequate for most vehicles, but it is also feasible to park in the paved Sno-Park and walk about a quarter mile to the trailhead. Watch on your left for a very small pullout and a trailhead sign in the trees. At the time of this writing, a Forest Pass is not required to park here, and day hikers can fill out a free permit at the trailhead (overnight stays do require a wilderness permit, however). These regulations do change, so do your due diligence ahead of time!

Start by walking on a gentle incline through lush woods thick with ferns and vine maples; parts of this section run along the traces of an old road bed. You will notice signs high above your head; these are for winter snow enthusiasts and are not very helpful for summertime hikers. At times these signs can be a bit confusing, but ignore the tempting arrows directing you down faint side trails and stay on the main path. Usually this is also the one going uphill. Get used to that.

Upper Twin Lake
Note the gradual change in the forest as you climb. Douglas fir and hemlock give way to noble fir and pine trees, and at around the halfway point a left turn takes you toward Duffy Lake and the Eight Lakes Basin. Keep right and begin to watch for the Twin Lakes on your left, with Maxwell Butte visible to the east. 

The Three Sisters
Now is when the views begin. Mt. Washington, Hoodoo Butte, Hayrick Butte, and Hogg Rock appear, as well as the Three Sisters and Broken Top. You can see the highway snaking through the hills below you as you climb through an increasingly alpine landscape.  Diamond Peak appears in the distant south. 

Jefferson and Three-Fingered Jack

Now the switchbacks begin, signaling the final stretch, but also the steepest. Footing is not always as solid here; you are in volcano country, as the multicolored pumice stones testify. There are reportedly a total of 6 switchbacks, although it's easy to lose track since they are irregular in length. At the end of the switchbacks, emerge onto the top of Maxwell Butte, once the site of a fire lookout and still the site of an old volcanic crater. Three Fingered Jack stares you in the face, and Mt. Jefferson looms to the north, with Mt. Hood visible in the distance. The dark cone to the east is Black Butte, and the dark hill to the southeast is Black Crater. Seasoned Oregon hikers will be able to pick out many more of their favorite landmarks. Below you can spot the Berley Lakes, Santiam Lake and nearby Duffy Lake, and Mowich Lake beyond them. Much of this area has been burned off, making the lakes easy to locate. Look around the summit for traces of the old lookout, built in 1933 and taken down in 1965. Return the way you came, only downhill this time, which is a well-earned reward!

Perhaps there are more popular, more well-maintained trails, perhaps there is scenery with less climbing, but this unsung hike is well worth a little effort. The solitude and silence, the peaceful forest, and above all, the spectacular mountain views will bring us back to this quiet climb through the woods. Mosquitoes and all.


Bear Grass

Upper Twin Lake

Be cautious in the early season, snow fields can completely obscure the trail!

Original survey marker at the summit from 1928

Remains of an old cast-iron stove at the summit

Your reward at the summit! Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, and the Eight Lakes Basin...

...and looking south, the Three Sisters with Hayrick and Hoodoo buttes.