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Black Rock Trail offers up some unique views

by: SCOTT STAATS PHOTO - The base of Lava Butte's south side is the source of the huge lava flow.There is something to the saying “Get outside and get yourself some fresh air.”

Between chilly rain showers, the ponderosa pine forest had a scent that can only be described as fresh. Manzanita bushes glistened with the morning’s moisture. Red-breasted nuthatches chattered high up in the canopy.

The Black Rock Trail was completed in 2003 and its upper trailhead begins at the Lava Lands Visitor Center parking lot. From the visitor center, it’s 4.5 miles to the Benham East Trailhead (the upper end of the Deschutes River  Trail) and 7.5 miles to Sunriver. The trail meanders through ponderosa pines on the edge of a lava flow and is easy hiking slightly downhill, with views of the lava field just about the entire way.

I thought it may be chilly now but it surely wasn’t the case almost 7,000 years ago when Lava Butte erupted. During that same period, about a dozen lava flows and cinder cones erupted from fissures on the flanks of Newberry Volcano. In the case of Lava Butte, gas-charged molten rock sprayed volcanic foam (cinders) into the air. These fell back into a pile to eventually form a 500-foot-high cinder cone now known as Lava Butte.

About 90 percent of the magma erupted as lava flows, 9 percent as cinders which forms the cone, and 1 percent as volcanic ash which forms a thin layer extending to the north.

When the amount of gas in the eruption decreased, a breach formed in the base of the southern part of the cinder cone and lava poured out, flowing downhill toward the Deschutes River. Once reaching the river, the lava acted like a massive bulldozer and pushed the river westward out of its channel. Lava dams created lakes, the largest one known as Lake Benham.

The river eventually overflowed the lava dams, eroded through them, drained the lakes and formed a series of rapids and falls (Benham, Dillon and Lava Island). Benham Falls has a series of Class V rapids and Class VI falls. All of these rapids have been run by kayaks or rafts in the past, but some people have lost their lives on each of them.

About a mile and a half down the Black Rock Trail, there is access to the lava flow via an old trail or logging road that leads to one of at least two “timber islands” in the flow. From this old road there are good views of Lava Butte, the expanse of the flow and the Cascades on a clear day.

The trail is open to hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers but is closed to all motorized vehicles. The only other trail user seen was a mountain biker who started out in Sunriver earlier that morning.

Once reaching the Deschutes River, there are a few options. Turn around and hike back to the upper trailhead, continue three miles to Sunriver or hike a half-mile down the Deschutes River Trail to Benham Falls. The Deschutes River Trail heads north (downriver) for about 8.5 miles. You could also have a designated driver and designated hikers. The driver can meet the hikers at the lower trailhead and save the hiker(s) the 4.5-mile return hike uphill. Or have two vehicles and leave one at each trailhead.

There’s a picnic area and restroom located at the river among huge ponderosa pines. The short hike to Benham Falls is worth the effort. The trail crosses the Deschutes River where the old logging railway crossed in the early 1900s. The Shevlin-Hixon Lumber Company (one of the largest lumber companies in the world at the time) floated logs down the upper Deschutes River. Just above Benham Falls the logs were loaded onto railcars and shipped to the mills in Bend.

The Deschutes River Trail follows much of this old railroad grade. Not far from the river, the Black Rock Trail crosses a modern railroad track used by Burlington Northern. Two miles of railroad grade across the Lava Butte lava flow were constructed in 1931 during a two-month period.

In 1929, approximately 2,000 cubic yards of cinders from the east side of Lava Butte were trucked to Bend, then loaded into railcars and shipped to Longview, Wash. The cinders were used in light-weight concrete for the bridge deck on the Longview Bridge across the Columbia River.

Lava Butte and its lava flow are part of Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The lava field covers nine square miles of land to a depth of 30 to 100 feet or an estimated 380,000,000 cubic yards of lava rock. A tour guide at the monument once explained that if all the lava was ground down, it could pave a road 24 feet wide and six inches deep for 160,000 miles, or six and a half times around the earth.

Lava Butte and the 400 other cinder cones that encircle Newberry Volcano are well preserved due to their high porosity and absorption of water, thus preventing any erosive runoff. Most cinder cones are marked by summit craters -- Lava Butte’s crater is 180 feet deep. The road to the top of Lava Butte was completed in early 1933.

Central Oregon’s lava has attracted more than recreational visitors. In July 1966, 22 NASA astronauts trained at sites including Lava Butte, Lava River Cave and Newberry Crater for their upcoming lunar expeditions. When standing out on the lava fields, they do have a moonscape appearance.

In May 1967, the U.S. Forest Service created the 8,983 acre Lava Butte Geological Area to protect the cinder cone. In 1975, Lava Lands Visitor Center, located just south of the cone, was dedicated. In November 1990, Newberry National Volcanic Monument was created, encompassing Newberry Crater, Lava Cast Forest Geological Area, Lava River Cave and the Lava Butte Geological Area.

While hiking on all or portions of the Black Rock Trail or Deschutes River Trail, you’ll get a taste of the beauty and power of the forces that shaped this land that we call home.

Scott Staats is a freelance outdoor writer based out of Central Oregon.



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