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Spencer Butte – An easy way to overlook Eugene

Photo by Lee JuilleratHikers enjoy the view from one of Spencer Butte's overlooks.
Photo by Lee JuilleratHikers make their way along steps leading to Spencer Butte's summit.

EUGENE — At first it wasn't too crowded.

There were a few other people. A young couple was standing atop one of Spencer Butte's viewpoints, a perch that overlooks Eugene and farther north along the Willamette Valley. Nearby, a mother with her little boy, young enough that when he walked, he teeter-totted back and forth taking, appropriately, baby steps. A handful were scattered along the summit area, a long rock outcrop, enjoying the 360-degree view or just relaxing.

Even though it was a weekday morning, the final climb to Spencer Butte's 2,065-foot summit was increasingly traveled by a caravan of hikers: A group of white-haired older seniors. Women, individually and in chatty groups. College-age youth, some wearing shorts and short-sleeve shirts, others bundled up in layers of clothing. Men and women of all ages, nearly half of them with dogs on leashes. One plopped down on a rocky resting place, one of her dogs stretching its leash and nose east, the other pointing west.

Two young kids, the oldest probably 7 or 8, and his bubbly younger brother explored the stack of boulders that marks Spencer Butte's actual high point. While they scampered about, their mother rested below, reading a book while nestled alongside her panting dog.

More people kept appearing. All ages, toddlers to seniors. Where there had been eight or so of us there were now dozens, with the parade of new arrivals seemingly endless.

Spencer Butte is reportedly Eugene area's most popular hike. It's easily accessible from town and its neighboring suburbs. Depending on which route is taken, it’s only a steep half-mile from its most popular trailhead, while two other longer routes are connected to the Ridgeline Trail.

My route began from the Ridgeline Trail’s Fox Hollow trailhead parking area. After crossing the highway, an elevation of 960 feet, it climbs steadily, following an amazingly well-manicured trail shaded by soaring stands of Douglas firs, some sporting mossy old-man's beards, and expansive fields of sword ferns.

Going up and, later, heading down, I encountered few other hikers. From the less traveled Fox Hollow trailhead the distance to Spencer Butte’s summit is two miles. It's an alluring and charming trail, passing through a landscape that on this sunny morning was glowing with the shiny hues of fall colors.

No matter which route is taken, the final stretch is a challenge. After finally rising above treeline, the trail climbs a series of large cement stairs, stairs designed for people with legs longer than mine.

The reward is the summit escarpment, which offers multiple viewpoints. My favorite was the view east, with the snow-covered peaks of the Three Sisters — South, Middle and North. Just peeking over the landscape slightly north of the Sisters was the tippy-top of Mount Washington, while rising prominently farther northwest was the bold, snowy triangular summit of Mount Jefferson.

The first known white person to see the expansive summit sights reportedly was Dr. Elijah White in 1845. White made the climb in hopes of spying a pass that wagon trains might use while crossing the Cascades. According to “Oregon Geographic Names,” White named the peak Spencer in honor of the nation's then secretary of War, John C. Spencer.

“Geographic Names” says other accounts exist. One says the butte remembers a young Englishman, identified only as Spencer, who wandered away from a Hudson’s Bay Company and was killed on the mountain by Indians. Another version says the mountain was named for a man named Spencer who was hunting birds when wild cattle forced him to climb up a tree. After a day and two nights “Spencer hollered with all the strength that was in him” when another person wandered near, helped Spencer down and “took him home in a wagon.”

Geologically, Spencer Butte’s history lacks the same drama as its naming. The butte is composed of gabbro, an intrusive basaltic rock that, according to “Oregon Rocks,” “invaded the sedimentary rocks 32 million years ago. Because the gabbro is more resistant to weathering and erosion than the surrounding sandstone, it forms a prominent peak that provides a wonderful hiking area.”

By any account, Spencer Butte is a wonderful hiking area. On sunny days the views overlook Eugene and an expansive region. It’s a hike and viewpoint that Eugene visitors shouldn’t overlook.

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