Lava Butte, Oregon

I last visited Newberry Crater, Oregon, and it’s flank cinder cone Lava Butte, in the summer of 2003.  Husband and I met up with his parents in a campground near Bend, and introduced them to volcanoes.  Newberry Crater is interesting to potter about — especially its Big Obsidian Flow — but it has such fascinating underlying geology (hint: it isn’t a classic subduction zone volcano) that it deserves a blog post of it’s own.  Soon.  For now, I want to talk about Lava Butte, a classic cinder cone.About 7000 years ago (the day before yesterday in geologic time) Lava Butte erupted.  It probably started as a fissure that threw up volcanic ash and cinders, and kept erupting them until it had built a cone some 500 feet (152 meters) above the surrounding ground.  Not content with ash and cinders, it also “leaked” lava from its base, toward the south.  Thick, viscous lava that forms lumps and blocks — what the Hawaiians call “aa”, pronounced “ah-ah”.  Lots of it.

Now, cinder cones are one-shot deals.  They do their pyromaniac routine, leak their lava, and they’re done.  Sort of a geologic burp.  Newberry Volcano may only be quiescent, but if it decides to make another cinder cone, it’ll be somewhere else.

There’s a road of sorts — though FSM help you if you encounter an RV going the other way as you drive it — to the top, and a visitor’s center.  There’s a trail that goes around the rim, and offers some great views of Cascade volcanoes.  There’s also a trail that was painstakingly dug/blasted/ground through some of the lava, letting visitors see this aa stuff close up.  It’s impressive. (I’ve heard at least one geology professor address it in less flattering terms, encountering it in southeast California: “Oh, hell.”)

Lava Butte from the lava trail
Lava Butte from the lava trail

I didn’t think to get a clear shot of the cinder cone from the parking lot, and it’s somewhat obscured here by the lava along the trail.

Lava Butte Crater
Lava Butte Crater

There are trees growing inside the crater!  Shrubs, too.  I can’t imagine how a plant could get a start inside a cinder cone, where water just goes right through, but these plants are doing nicely.  Amazing.

A blocky aa section
A blocky aa section

Here you can see how blocky the lava is.  That’s my mom-in-law posing for scale.

A lava "valley"
A lava “valley”

The lava flow isn’t regular, either; it has peaks and valleys.

Lava field
Lava field

And lest you think this is just a few lumps of rock next to the cone, here’s a shot of the lava field.  You can see the line of trees where it stops.  Though I have to admit, I’m almost more impressed by the plants than the lava.  How could any growing thing colonize that?

Some geologic burp, indeed.


Lava Butte, Oregon

5 thoughts on “Lava Butte, Oregon

  1. 1

    Dana and I visited in August of last year (2011). I should think about doing a photo supplement- in terms of cinder cones, it’s so classic as to be almost mundane. What makes it particularly special, as you allude, is easy access. You can actually get to and see all that stuff without risking life and limb.

    Also, quick bit of advice: they’re (as of last summer) using a first-come, first served permit system to drive to the summit parking area. Congestion both in the drive and (as you might imagine) limited parking area had become too much, and unsafe. So if you want to drive to the top, arrive as soon after opening as you can manage. We just *happened* to hit it right after they’d opened for the day, and easily snagged one of the free permits. If you prefer- and are capable- you can also hike to the top. This might be better if you want to spend a lot of time on top. I think the permits are good for half an hour, which is plenty of time to do more than just take a quick look. But if you want to walk around the rim, take lots of time to frame and set up photos, or maybe eat a packed lunch, hiking might be a preferable option.

  2. 3

    To be clear, they issue permits all day, so you *might* be able to get one any time. But there are a limited number out at any given time, so only time you can be *assured* of getting on is on really slow day, or at opening.

  3. 5

    I was there in 2002, and I don’t recall that traffic or parking was a problem. A very cool place. The plants are all stuff that is well adapted to dry, well-drained environments. I remember some really beautiful manzanita there.

    Newberry is also impressive. The obsidian/pumice flow is worth the trip all by itself. From the summit, it looks like a gigantic pahoehoe flow. I’ve got pictures of pines growing on it that made this bonsai enthusiast drool.That’s also where I saw my first lenticular cloud – we don’t see them in the midwest.

    I really need to get back to the Pacific northwest…

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