Snowshoeing Maxwell Butte near Sisters, Oregon

After spending much of the winter enjoying the sights and peaks of the Northern Oregon Cascades, Jason and I decided to travel further South and snowshoe to Maxwell Butte on Sunday. We left early, hoping to avoid any Spring Break traffic and have the trail at least partially to ourselves. Our reward was a nearly empty parking lot. The only cars there had clearly been left overnight. The sky was high overcast with a slight breeze and 29° F temperature when we arrived. Maxwell SnoPark is located approximately 28 miles Northwest of Sisters, Oregon along Highway 22.

Maxwell Butte Trail Elevation Profile

Armed with a GPS and compass, we set out from the East end of the SnoPark. Our intended route would take us eight miles round trip, with a 2500' elevation gain over four miles. However, the last 800' of this ascent would come during the last half mile. After scrambling up a small wall of plowed snow, we reached the trail. Seeing a narrow, packed rut, we thought at first that we would be able to hike for a time without snowshoes. However, less than a few hundred yards out, the packed trail turned to powder. The weather fronts over the past week had deposited nearly two feet of powder, creating a winter wonderland. We realized then that we would spend much of the hike breaking trail through the powder, as few people had used it during the week. This significantly reduced our speed, but our Atlas snowshoes again performed flawlessly.

About ¼ mile down the trail, we began to see traditional blue diamond trail markers and soon arrived at a large signed trail marker, complete with trail map. As we continued on, we realized that the trail system stemming from Maxwell SnoPark was very well-marked, offering clear guidance through trail maps at regular intervals. This was a novelty we were not used to, as most of our winter snowshoe trips have been within Mt. Hood National Forest.

Katie Near Trail Marker on the Way to Maxwell Butte     Tape Marking the Trail within Jefferson Wilderness

Having covered a little over two miles, we reached the Twin Lakes junction. At this point, we began following the Maxwell Butte Trail. Though we had left the Willamette National Forest and its blue diamond trail markers some time ago, we regularly saw primitive ribbon trail markers within the Jefferson Wilderness. Nearly six feet of snow had covered any trace of the trail, but these primitive markers were quite visible and allowed us to easily remain on course.

Trail Sign at Twin Lakes Junction     Snow Covered Tree

After hiking approximately three miles, we were afforded our first glimpse of Maxwell Butte. Though I had reviewed our route and the trail’s topography with Jason prior to agreeing to do this hike, my first words were “We’re going to climb THAT?!?” After assuring me that this ascent was well within my capabilities, we continued on. The sky grew darker and we experienced snow flurries. At this point, the trail gave us a relatively flat reprieve from our gradual ascent.

Faintly Visible Maxwell Butte Trail     First Glimpse of Maxwell Butte

This respite was short-lived, however, as we soon began the grueling work of ascending 800 feet over the last 0.5 mile. The trail continued to be powder-covered and we could not discern any packed spots. As the slope continued to steepen, I offered to break trail for awhile because Jason had been in the lead until this point. After an overnight snowshoeing excursion to Devils Half Acre and Barlow Butte, his legs were slightly fatigued. Upon making ten paces in this powder, I realized how treacherous it was to break trail in these conditions. But we continued onward, not willing to let a little sweat or sore muscles stop us from reaching the summit.

Looking Back at our Trail     Katie Smiling as the Slope Continues to Steepen

At this point, the slope was at least 50° and probably around 60° in sections. Because of the deep powder, we had to kick-step our way up the slope, being careful to pack the snow down with each step in order to keep our footing. We also dug in with our poles to generate more leverage.

Looking to our Left on a Steep Slope Within the Trees     Looking to our Right on a Steep Slope Within the Trees

As we passed the 6100’ elevation mark, the wind began to pick up and the trees thinned. The last of our ascent was cold and windy, and we made it to the summit of Maxwell Butte in just under five hours. Jason was thankful to have his Peak 2 Peak jacket blocking out the bone chilling wind.

View from Atop Maxwell Butte Summit     View of Lost Lake

Though fog and clouds remained, we were still able to glimpse a few landmarks. On a clear day, the views here are likely breath-taking. Many hikers report that this butte offers some of the best views of Three Fingered Jack in the state. This could be reason enough to repeat the hike when the weather is better and the snow is packed.

Three Fingered Jack Hidden in the Clouds     Another View from Maxwell Butte

After taking a few pictures on the breezy summit, we decided to forgo lunch until we reached a slightly lower and more sheltered elevation.

Katie on the Summit of Maxwell Butte     Jason on the Summit of Maxwell Butte

Because the slopes were so steep on the first part of our descent, we decided to employ a sitting glissade to avoid falling and speed up our return trip. As we descended, the clouds began to part a little and we could see other peaks and lakes in the distance. On less steep slopes, I practiced my standing glissade technique.

Katie Glissading Down Maxwell Butte     View from Lower Slopes of Maxwell Butte

About halfway back, we encountered two gentlemen who were cross-country skiing the trail. They too remarked about the powdery trail and said they were surprised we kept so close to the actual trail during our ascent. We decided to stop for lunch at Twin Lakes and were rewarded with less wind and even some sun breaks. The sandwiches and chips we packed provided a much-needed refueling for the last two miles of our journey.

Twin Lakes with Maxwell Butte in the Background     Katie at Twin Lakes

During our trek back, we encountered a rain/snow mix and were often hit with snow falling from the trees, as the temperature had risen to 35° F. By the time we reached the SnoPark, the precipitation had picked up considerably. Our return trip took approximately 2.5 hours. After removing our snowshoes at the edge of the trail, we made a dash for the truck and departed.


m. mio, Wed, 03/23/2011 - 10:41

looking at the map, I can imagine the views of TFJ would be great -- if it was clear! The part when you said you reviewed the maps/topo but still said 'we're climbing THAT??!' was pretty funny. Awesome to have the full winter-wonderland all to your selves. Seems like there are a lot of lakes around there, and could be a pretty neat place to camp with a view in the spring/summer.

jloomis, Wed, 03/23/2011 - 12:17

Funny you mention summer camping in the area. Back in high school I had a backpacking trip planned in the area, but it never came to fruition. This snow trip was my first time in the region and jogged my memory of my past plans. Maybe I will have to rekindle them for this summer.

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