Smith Rock State Park's most defining feature is a ridge of rocky cliffs reaching hundreds of feet into the sky above the meandering Crooked River. Located in Central Oregon, these cliffs are largely credited for being the birthplace of modern American rock climbing. The volcanic rocks, jagged, large, and vertical like a giant shark's teeth, are dramatic and daring while the Crooked River and grassy hills are soft and subtle. This unique combination creates a landscape that is both massive and inspiring, yet calming and humbling. This was evident when we arrived and in one view could see climbers pushing themselves up a 90-degree wall while another family enjoyed an afternoon picnic at a table by the river.
After catching the tail end of my niece's high school graduation, I joined with TJ and Cindy and we were off on a 20 minute drive to the park. Continuing a streak of luck we had with passes, permits, and parking on this trip to Oregon, we were unaware until arrival that the park was offering a "free day". "Cool beans!"
After parking, we immediately started down a winding trail to the foot-bridge providing access to the cliffs. You see, the rocks stand in formation, forcing the Crooked River to detour around them and creating the illusion of a peninsula that can only be reached by this bridge. On the other side, we were met with a group of stronger, lighter, and more daring individuals than ourselves attempting a climb up the first rock face we saw.
Seeing these climbers navigating a vertical route first-hand was just the inspiration we needed to attempt some climbing of our own, with varying levels of success.
Realizing it was wise to leave the climbing to the climbers, we thought the best way to enjoy the park was to hike instead. We assumed the smartest way to attack the park would be to hike up one side of the ridge and then down the other; Once on the other side, we would return by taking the easy way back, walking river-side along the base of the cliffs.
This particular route, known as the Misery Ridge trail, came recommended by my brother. I thought the name was just trying to be cute but we soon learned that the 640-foot elevation gain (over only 1/2 of a mile) was only capable of being described one way: misery. The trail began with two series of switchbacks etched into the side of the ridge. Every step was a step-up and every illusion of progress was thwarted when we would turn the corner and discover the next part of the climb. In some places, the park was even courteous enough to provide stairs (if you can call that a courtesy).
Misery Ridge sucked, if I may be frank. It was essentially the equivalent of walking half-way up the Empire State Building or two-thirds the way up the Eiffel Tower. It created a silent camaraderie among those of us attempting it, with each of us knowing the pain of the other. I can complain endlessly about the hike up but what stands out most vividly to me was a 2 1/2 year old who managed to complete the hike with little assistance from his parents. In fact, at one point he even passed us and it became my sole motivation to not get beaten by a freakin' toddler!
In the spirit of competing with a baby, we pushed hard in the final stretches and made it to the top. For all our misery, it was a tremendously rewarding experience.
A few steps from this perch and we got a grand view that stretched all of the way to the Cascades, with the exception of a region blocked by a pesky, local wildfire (the same fire which went viral when it served as the background to a glass half-full kind of couple on their wedding day).
Just a short and flat (luckily) walk to the other side of the ridge and we caught a great view of the Monkey Face, a vertical splinter of rock jutting 350 feet out from the side of the hill. As during the start of our hike, we were pleased to see two climbers wrestling with the insane climb. Below you can see the rough features that make the rock-face a "monkey face" but the illusion would better come together later as we progressed along the Crooked River.
After spending upwards of 20 minutes resting and relaxing from our miserable encounter with Misery Ridge, it was time to proceed down the other side of the cliffs. Just like Misery Ridge, there was a handful of switchbacks down the hill; Unlike Misery Ridge, they felt remarkably easier. We were even treated to a view of the Monkey Face climbers descending from their climb, slowly lowering themselves from the beast like drool from its mouth.
As we reached the bottom, the illusion of a monkey's face revealed itself more clearly in the rock's shadows.
Once down the Mesa Verde Trail on the other side of the ridge, it was time for the 2 mile walk around the rock formations and back to the car, the majority of which was spent hiking along the river on the aptly named River Trail.
The view was smaller than it was 700 feet up but gorgeous none-the-less. The quietly whirling and babbling Crooked River and the gently waving grasses made for a quaint and serene vista. The river was forced to take the same detour around the peaks as we were but I'm confident that it's planning revenge against the rocks. I've said it before but I'm never short of amazed what a little bit of water and millions of years can do to seemingly impenetrable rocks.
Once on the other, shaded side of the ridge, we grew quiet. We were on our 16th mile hiked in 3 days and the tiredness was clearly evident. That may not sound like a lot to you crazy marathoners out there but for city-kids like Cindy and me, the mileage took its toll. Our pace was reduced to a stroll, which was nice because we were able to soak in the greater details of the park. We even made a snake friend!
We loved our time at Smith Rock State Park. Like most of our visits in Oregon, we were rushed by self-imposed time demands; We could have easily spent all day along that river, staring at those peaks. But as my view is normally in these situations: leaving early, not getting enough time to enjoy everything a place has to offer—just gives reason to go back.
For some more awesome photos of Smith Rock State Park, check out the gallery below: