Black Butte • Highpoint: Glenn County
• Northern California Coastal Range

Date Climbed
May 22, 2003

7,448 feet

4 miles

3 hours

900 feet

Clear, cool weather
Significant snow on ground

2,436 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

The summit from Telephone Pass


...and Scott

Beth and I about halfway up

Beth at the top

and me, too

Scott on the descent

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Black Butte is a common name for mountains, and this particular one is an impressive rocky summit in the northern California Coast Ranges, serving as the highest point in Glenn County. Nearby is another county highpoint, Anthony Peak, which is the highest point in Mendocino County. The natural thing to do is to combine hikes to these peaks into one outing, especially since they are remote and also, since Anthony Peak is mostly a drive-up. This was our plan, too.

We were coming out this way mainly to spend some time in Fort Bragg, the neat little town along the California coast about two hours north of San Francisco. Beth lived in Fort Bragg in the 1990s and was eager to return. I don't think I'd ever been here before. Maybe as a kid in 1980 on a big road trip to Oregon, but I can't be sure. We left Phoenix on the 21st, flying into Sacramento, and driving another 80 miles north along Interstate-5 to Willows, the Glenn County seat. We stayed at a Super-8 and mainly relaxed. There isn't much to see or do in Willows. In fact, most of Glenn County is flat valley farm country, except for the parts of the county that encroach into the Coast Range.

The next morning we gassed up, and I could see the range, and Black Butte, way off in the distance. There was still some snow on the highest reaches, which was minorly concerning since it could mean closed roads or more treacherous conditions than usual. We were only planning for a simple day hike, nothing fancy. There's only one way to find out, so we headed off toward the mountains, hoping for the best. Our intended route was state highway CA-162, which exists on both sides of the range, but for an intervening 35 miles, is a simple unpaved forest road. I had called the highway information line, asking about this highway, and the lady on the phone reported no closures. I even got specific about the forest parts, and again, she said all of CA-162 was open. I had a sense I wasn't getting a solid answer because technically, all of CA-162 was down low where snow wouldn't be a problem, while the 35-mile dirt road segment, technically not part of CA-162, could have closures, but the lady on the phone didn't seem to grasp that, even when I brought it up.

The initial drive west from Willows went through farm lands then into some hillier country, with the signature rounded oak-and-grass covered hills famous to California. Very beautiful, and very remote. There were a few homesteads around here, but mostly it was wide open. In time we turned onto Alder Springs Road, which is the local name for the part of CA-162 that goes up and over the range. And there was a sign posted, "Pass Closed". Ugh. Well, we'd come this far, and had a whole day to kill, so we decided to go in anyway.

Alder Springs Road/CA-162 gently gains higher ground with some stupendous views along the way. The CA-162 designation ends at the Mendocino Forest boundary, but the pavement continues another 10 miles. Then it ends, too, placing us on nice, well-maintained dirt and gravel roads. We saw some bicyclists and that was all. Not a single vehicle coming the other way, which would have been a hint the pass may not be open. Finally, a Forest Service truck came down and we motioned for them to stop, and they said the pass was snowed in and closed. Any normal sane person would have taken the multitude of hints and turned around. We didn't, and continued on our way.

A few minutes later, we started to see snow patches, which grew into snow fields, but the road was pretty good, so we kept at it until we came upon a big snow plow and a bunch of guys just sitting there. They were the snowplow guys and they had just plowed the road open not ten minutes ago! Wow, what dumb luck. Had we been an hour earlier we would have hit impassable snow and had to have turned back. We would be the first people to go over the newly-opened road for the season!

We were no more than a couple miles from the Black Butte side road, and the road itself was a mush of mud and newly melted snow, but our rental truck did well and we were able to park along the road at the junction of the side road that leads in toward Black Butte. This side road was not plowed, of course, so we'd have to walk it. Given our good luck a few minutes earlier, we were very pleased just to be here. So we got dressed and packed and started our hike.

We walked the side road, or more accurately, walked the snow shrouding the road, in for about a mile. There were no human footprints in this snow, but we did see a well-defined bear paw-print. But we saw no bears and simply kept an eye out for them. Without snowshoes, we sunk to our ankles, and in places, to our knees and even waist, as we plowed through the soft, mushy snow. We came to the end of this side road, a big clearing below Black Butte's top, surrounded by trees. So far, so good. And wet, too. Our pants and shoes were soaked.

The top was very near, maybe just 400 vertical feet, but as we progressed up the slopes, the snow was much less consolidated. In places we were nearly up to our chest in snow, inching forward ever so slowly, mainly going from one tree to another, or rock outcrop, whatever looked reachable. In this way we were able to go upward. Fortunately, the final hundred feet was much more solid, and we made the summit after 90 minutes. We rested and sat on the rocks, looking around at the amazing views. Big Lassen Peak was visible way to the east. Other peaks also stood out in all directions, including nearby Anthony Peak. The day was spectacular, with clear skies and pleasant temperatures. Overall, it was a beautiful summit in a beautiful region. We were the first signatures for 2003, not surprising given our good luck with the plow team.

The downhill went much better. We followed our own tracks, meaning we'd already consolidated the snow, and also had gravity working with us. The downclimb back onto the flatter road portion took maybe 20 minutes, but the final mile walk out to our vehicle took awhile. The sun was melting the snow quickly, so we had knee and waist-deep mushy crud to barge through. We returned to our vehicle after a total of 3 hours on the hike, but utterly exhausted and soaked, literally from head to toe. We changed into dry clothes and continued west on the forest road.

Well, I couldn't resist at least looking at Anthony's access road, but we got to some snowdrifts that made the road slick and impassable, so we abandoned any idea of hiking up Anthony, and decided to come back another time (which we did, in 2005). Instead, we just drove down into Covelo and on to Fort Bragg for some good fish-eating, hippie-watching and fog-wandering. A great place!

After a couple days on the coast, we came back inland and had a successful hike to the west peak of Cobb Mountain, thus allowing me to make amends from a failed attempt of that highpoint from 2001.

(c) 2003, 2012 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.