Olallie Butte in Oregon is my most favorite awesome hike EVER!
Just the facts: Olallie Butte
- Length – 6.7 miles
- Type – out and back
- Elevation gain – 2570 feet
- Elevation at summit – 7215 feet
- Difficulty – moderate/difficult
Kinda almost on top of the world
Olallie Butte is the third highest peak in northwest Oregon. The butte sits next to Olallie Lake and is nestled near the base of Mt. Jefferson. The summit offers spectacular views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams and the Three Sisters. It’s about the same intensity as Saddle Mountain but almost a mile longer each way with 1,000 feet more elevation climb, so prepare yourself for a killer workout.
A good chunk of the trail lies on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, which I suppose is why the trail is unmarked. It is well maintained, however. I did extensive research online and found no mention of the area being off-limits to hikers. Best as I could tell, there’s been an off-the-books agreement between the US Forest Service and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation for decades to allow, but not advertise, hiking on Olallie Butte. The result is a lightly used, phenomenal trail that offers one of the most spectacular views in the Pacific Northwest.
Well off the beaten path
Getting there is an adventure in and of itself.
Pro tip #1: Be sure to load directions into your GPS/mapping app before you set out. You will lose cell coverage well before getting to the unmarked trailhead. From Portland, it’s about a 2.5 hour drive.
Pro tip #2: On the way there, take HWY 26, which passes the iconic Mt. Hood, to save ten minutes of travel time. On the way back, take the less-traveled HWY 224, which follows the scenic Clackamas River.
Whichever course you choose, type Olallie Lake into your mapping system. Olallie Lake is well marked with highway signs. However, the Olallie Butte trailhead is unmarked.
How the heck do you find Olallie Butte?
A couple miles before Olallie Lake you’ll pass under a set of (huge) power lines. There is a small pullout at the third set of power lines. Park there, cross the road and start up a one-lane gravel road. Look for a pair of ribbons after about 50 feet on the right side. This marks the beginning of the trail.
Why Olallie Butte is so close to my heart
Olallie Butte holds very special memories for me. It was the first hike Heather and I did together, way back in August 1995. As usual, I undersold the intensity of the hike. Also as usual, Heather was a great sport and pushed through to the summit.
We were rewarded with breathtaking views and a memory of a lifetime. Although it was in the 80s that day (70s at elevation), there was still one patch of snow at the summit. And after the hardest hike Heather had ever navigated, we enjoyed the best pizza of our lives on the way back to Portland.
My solo return trip 24 years later brought back great memories. It also reminded me I’m no longer 28 years old.
To hike or not to hike, that is the question
Because of the elevation, there will be snow most of the year. So Olallie is best hiked between May and September. I did the hike in early October. It had snowed the week before, creating doubt about my hike.
I’m a big fan of researching, so I checked out the latest reviews on AllTrails the night before. People had mentioned there was snow the last two miles, but not how much snow. I’d been looking forward to the hike for months. It was quite the quandary. I surely didn’t want to get all the way up there, only to get turned around halfway up.
Then again, I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity if there was only a quarter-inch of snow on the ground.
Always have a backup plan
I compromised by deciding to hike Ramona Falls first thing in the morning, a hike I’d done a couple years back. The seven-mile Ramona Falls trek is beautiful, but fairly mellow. I was the first one in the lot and finished well before noon.
With many hours of daylight ahead, I figured what the hell, why not at least drive up to Olallie? Having already put a great hike under my belt for the day, it wouldn’t be a total loss if the butte was impassable. (Technically, you can hike Olallie year-round with snowshoes but I’m not that into hiking…)
It was a crisp, beautiful day with no wind and temperatures in the low 40s in Portland, which translated to the 30s in the mountains. I passed under the parking spot for the unmarked Olallie Butte trailhead and intentionally kept on trucking another two miles. I hadn’t seen Olallie Lake in almost 25 years, so made a quick pit stop.
It being well past tourist season, the lake was empty of people save for a friendly forestry crew. I snapped a few quick pics then headed back to the parking spot under the power lines.
Enough reminiscing, let’s hike Olallie Butte!
After parking, I crossed the main road, headed up the perpendicular gravel road and saw the two ribbons marking the start of the trail. After a quarter-mile, you’ll intersect the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT). Keep straight.
As stated earlier, the trail gains 2570 feet in less than 3.5 miles. For non-math majors (like me), this can only mean one thing: you’ll be going uphill the whole way.
You’ll start in dense forest, with a moderate rate of ascent. Your first views will be of Mt. Hood to the north.
After 2.5 miles you’ll clear the forest, having worked over to the south side of the butte. You’ll be welcomed by two things: a great view of Olallie Lake and Mt. Jefferson, and a set of killer steep switchbacks. Above the tree line, the trail gets rocky and you’ll feel like a goat scrabbling a set of steep switchbacks to crest the summit. In the summer, that is.
Houston, we have a problem: It has snowed (a lot) on Olallie Butte
But remember, it had snowed the week before. Just how much was there? It only took a half-mile to see the first snow on the trail. Uh oh.
But wait, it was only a quarter-inch, so no biggie, right? The rest of the forest portion was basically the same, no more than an inch.
However, once I cleared the tree line, things got a little, let’s say, interesting. Next thing I know, I’m over my ankles in snow.
Then it occurred to me that the only tracks I’d seen on the trail thus far belonged to animals: mostly deer but also tracks that looked like dog paw prints. Hmmm. No other hikers, so why would there be doggie paw prints?
Hold the phone, Mike. You’re no tracker. You had no idea what kind of animal tracks those were. Spoiler alert: denial is strong in this one, Yoda.
Had Heather been with me, this would have been a classic moment. We’re a mile from the summit with the steepest section ahead of us. We’d have already completed a 7-plus mile hike and were 2.5 miles into this one. We haven’t encountered another hiker the entire trail. The wind has picked up a bit. The temperature has dropped a bit more. The trail is now completely covered in snow and there aren’t any (human) tracks to follow. It’s getting well into the afternoon, past 3:00 at this point. Tick, tock. But Heather was back in Kentucky. What’s a guy to do? Being alone and all, I made the only reasonable stubborn choice possible—trek on!
I could see the summit above me, so it wasn’t like I was going to get lost, right? Emboldened, I took a few steps forward and sunk into foot-deep snow. Dammit!
I could hear Heather in the back of my head, “Don’t be stupid. Just turn back.” I compromised by deciding to go another 50 feet before deciding. Sometimes stubborn is better than smart. Turns out I’d just hit a snow drift and was soon back into two-inch or less snow. Also, I could make out enough of the trail to follow. At least for the next half a mile. By then, I was all in. Mike will not be denied!
You’re an idiot; here’s your reward anyway
By this point, I’m damn near wiped out tired. I’ve lost the trail. It’s below freezing, but I’m sweating. But none of that mattered because the summit was just above me. Nothing left to do but say to myself, “Screw it. Just go straight up!” The snow was three to four inches deep, making each step a chore, but a blast of adrenaline stubbornness propelled me scrabbling onward and upward.
Five minutes later, I was at the top, panting like a dog.
Instantly, the wind whipped up, blasting me with a steady 25 mile an hour slap to the face that seemed to come from every direction. But the panoramic view made the discomfort and fatigue all melt away.
The view was even more breathtaking that I’d remembered. Then again, last time up here I was a punk kid head-over-heels for the hot girl from Kentucky I’d met just three months ago.
This time, I had the entire butte to myself. The clear day offered a panoramic view of a good chunk of northwest Oregon and into Washington. Mount Hood, check! Mount Jefferson, check! Mt. St. Helens, check. Mt. Adams, check! Three Sisters, check! Olallie Lake, check!
High desert to the east, forest and lakes in every other direction. Deciding to shoot a quick video to capture the entire scope of the view, I popped off a glove and started shooting. That’s when I realized how ridiculously cold and windy it was up there.
Don’t mistake my near exhaustion and slurred speech for intoxication. I swear it was just the wind and cold taking my breath away!
Back to earth
After exploring the summit for ten minutes and capturing a slew of photos, common sense (finally) got the best of me.
I clambered down the rocky portion, following my own tracks until I came to the trail. The descent was a breeze as it was entirely downhill. While it took almost two hours to climb the summit, it took barely an hour to descend.
I was meeting friends in a sleepy town south of Portland so Google Maps put me on HWY 224 for the return trip. The meandering scenic highway followed the Clackamas River, offering serene views for some fifty miles and enough time to recoup from the exertion of the twin hikes.
Interested in additional Oregon hikes? Check out this Oregon Hike and a Pint: Neahkahnie Mountain to Cape Falcon
After hiking Olallie Butte, time for a beer, dammit
A little over two hours later, I was sampling craft beers with college friends at the FOB (Friends of Beer) Taproom in Canby. First up was a flight of Oregon IPAs, representing Ft. George Brewery of Astoria, 10 Barrel of Bend, and Thunder Island of Cascade Locks. Thanks to my good friends the Umbenhowers, we all enjoyed a deli tray of meats, cheeses and crackers for appetizers.
As great as the IPAs tasted after the day’s double-header hike, the perfect pint to accompany this classic hike is none other than the microbrew that started it all for me more than 25 years ago—Widmer Hefewiezen. This timeless unfiltered wheat beer was the first microbrew I ever tasted. And after a monster day of hiking, it’s still hard to beat.
The Widmer Hefe has just enough body to leave domestics in the dust, without being overbearing like some of today’s edgier offerings. Of course, never skip the lemon, which brings out the best of the wheat beer. It’s near impossible to get fresh Widmer Hefewiezen in Kentucky, so a fresh pint out of the tap is always a treasure.
Kids, don’t try both Olallie Butte and Ramona Falls in one day!
I didn’t start the day intending to do two full hikes and wouldn’t recommend replicating the effort. Both Ramona Falls and Olallie Butte stand on their own as great day hikes. So why kill yourself to do both on the same day?
Though the exertion was far more than planned or normal, I had an absolute blast connecting with nature and retracing steps not traveled in more than two decades. According to my FitBit Versa, I logged: 41,068 steps, 447 floors, 18.22 miles, and 4,721 calories. That’s easily double a typical day’s hike. Which is why I felt no regrets over ordering my own Mr. Fultano’s Hawaiian pizza for dinner.
As this was the opening day of my Fall 2019 hiking walkabout, there was no time to recover as I had two more hikes ahead of me.