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Eagle Nest Butte more than a spot on the map

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — For years Eagle Nest Butte was just another name on the map, a somewhere place in the southwest corner of Lava Beds National Monument.

So when the opportunity came to hike to the little-known, little-visited, 5,477-foot cinder cone, the decision was a no-brainer.

Eagle Nest Butte doesn’t figure in any brochures about Lava Beds. That’s nothing new. A 1965 report, “The Origin of Geographical, Geological and Historical Feature Names in Lava Beds National Monument and Adjacent Lands,” which includes 71 caves and 57 “Other Features,” including Eagle Nest Butte, simply states “unknown.”

No trail leads to its top. The roads leading to the easier place to access Eagle Nest Butte go outside the park’s south boundary toward Medicine Lake before angling back west and slightly north on an unsigned dirt road to a parking area that’s just steps outside of the park boundary and its Black Lava Flow Wilderness Area.

Once there, it’s not a difficult cross-country hike from the parking area to Eagle Nest’s summit, a distance of about 1-1/2 miles. Traveling with people who’ve gone before helps in avoiding unforeseen obstacles, such as climbing down and up a rocky lava flow gully and avoiding sections with stubborn thickets of bitterbrush and manzanita. By the easiest route, it’s a pleasant hike that includes ambling past tall, yellow-belly Ponderosa pines and fields of wildflowers.

On the hike up we paused and watched as an incredibly large bird, one that the birders in our group decided was as a golden eagle, flew in erratic circles. It was chased and harassed by a smaller bird they determined was a red-tailed hawk. There’s a second part to the story. Later, on the hike off Eagle Nest — one that took us down the butte’s east side and through more Ponderosa pines and spruce forests — we spied the hawk’s nest high in a tall pine. Mama was protecting her babies.

We saw no sign of eagles or nest atop Eagle Nest. Its summit is nothing dramatic, just a high point on the isolated cinder cone. Although nearby Hippo Butte was hidden from view, the sights were many, including Dome Mountain, Goosenest, Cinder Butte, Gillems Bluff, Tule Lake, Whitney Butte and, to the south, snow-covered Glass Mountain. But the most eye-popping sights were the massive Callahan Lava Flow and, imprisoned within its clunky sea of ragged lava, a stand of trees at lonely Island Butte.

At Eagle Butte’s summit was a sign-in book — a notepad with a pencil fitted inside two tin cans placed in a rocky covering. As usual, pages revealed several signatures by Bill Van Moorhem, who was leading our group of five and, just to be sure, had made the Eagle Nest hike a day earlier. The names included Lava Beds rangers and others who, according to their notes, were doing annual butterfly counts.

With refilled stomachs, we intentionally bypassed the route we’d taken up, choosing instead to loop around a portion of the butte before heading toward the Callahan Lava Flow. The Callahan is an intimidating jumble of black lava, one that dominates Lava Beds’ southwestern corner and extends in a broad swath toward Whitney Butte.

On his previous visits, Bill had located an unnamed cave along Callahan’s flank. Three of us dipped into the cave, following rock steps apparently made years ago. Flashlights and headlamps weren’t needed — the cave might more accurately be classified as a bridge because daylight immediately revealed its outlet. Once out, Jerry Inman navigated up the Callahan, reaching its ragged-edged rim, before scrambling back to the brushy field leading back to our cars.

Eagle Nest Butte had been just a spot on the map. As we first-timers learned, it’s quite a spot.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Jerry Inman enjoys the view from a ridge along the Callahan Lava Flow on the way to Eagle Nest Butte in Lava Beds National Monument. Photo by Lee Juillerat
Jerry Inman checks out a small pond of frozen water at the bottom of an unnamed cave near Eagle Nest Butte. Photo by Lee Juillerat