You can get to top of the Lava Butte cinder cone by hopping onto a shuttle or taking a short hike from its base. The 500-foot tall butte is located at the Lava Lands Visitor Center in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument about eight miles south of Bend, Oregon. Lava Butte is one of the hundreds of cinder cones in the immediate area.
Lava Butte erupted about 7,000 years ago. There are several trails that wind through the ancient lava flows and onto the flanks of the butte. There were three main gutters where most of the lava flowed. Ten square miles of pine forest were buried by lava. The lava flows blocked the Deschutes River in five places. If you walk the trail to Benham Falls you can see where the river has made its way through the lava rock.
When the eruption of Lava Butte occurred, gas-charged lava was ejected into the sky. Cinders cooled and collected to form the 500 foot tall cone shape you see today. Giant balls of lava can be seen along the trail. These “snowballs” started out as small pieces of molten rock and as they rolled through the lava flow, they grew in size. If you could cut one of them open, it would resemble a cinnamon roll in form.
The basalt rocks have less silica in them so they aren’t shiny like obsidian. The cinders are used locally to gravel the roads in snowy and icy weather conditions. The lava rocks are also used for landscaping purposes.
The wildlife that live in the lava lands have to adapt to the harsh conditions. You may see some of the small rodents such as the American pika, Ochtana princeps, yellow-pine chipmunk, Eutamias amoenus, or golden-mantled ground squirrel, Spermophilus latreralis. You may hear the sweet song of the rock wren, Salpintes obsoletus, before you see it. You may also hear the sound of the pallid-winged grasshopper, Trimerotropis pallidipennis. Their call has been likened to the sound of a sprinkler.
The plant life has also adapted to the dry, or xeric, conditions. You may see varieties of rabbitbrush and buckwheat growing between the lava rocks. If you are there at the right time of the year, you will see the showy colors of Davidson’s penstemon, Penstemon davidsonii, or Oregon sunshine, Eriophyllum lanatum. Wax currant, Ribes cereum, has berries that were used in the past by Native Americans in the making pemmican – which is similar to beef jerky.
Many of the remaining trees in the area have a twisted form. The rocks take a long time to break down into soil here in the very dry conditions. The trees send out a taproot that searches for water. The spiral growth form allows all of the branches to get water. One of the tree trunks here is referred to as the “Lava Ness Monster” since it resembles the Loch Ness Monster in profile.
The Lava Lands Visitor Center is only open from May 1 to October 31. You can purchase a recreation pass at the entrance gate or use one you may already have. Due to very limited parking at the top of Lava Butte, you must board the shuttle to drive to the top. The fee to ride the shuttle is $2 round trip.
There are several trails around the butte. I have walked on the 1.1-mile long Trail of the Molten Land and have also driven to the top and walked around the crater. There is a fire lookout at the peak but it is not open to the public. Information about the trails can be found inside the visitor center. Click here to see my article about the Lava Lands Visitor Center .
Fun fact: Astronauts trained here in 1966. NASA thought the landscapes of the moon might be similar to this habitat.