Don't pass on Smith Rock

Even if you've been there, done that, this state park has a lot to offer

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

Published Mar 6, 2013 at 04:00AM

Griping about weather forecasters is almost as pointless as griping about the weather. But that's not going to stop me.

Late February or not, anyone hoping for an early spring — and I'm one such heretic — felt the same pain I did last week when the forecast called for sunny to partly cloudy days and mild temperatures, then ended up being overcast and, ugh, wintry.

Map Guy and I had planned to hike up Misery Ridge at Smith Rock State Park on Thursday, but, looking out the window at a cold, cloudy, windy, sunless, gray, dismal — you get the idea — world, I figured, why drive to Terrebonne for Misery when already surrounded by it?

So I called Map Guy, and he agreed it would be worth waiting until Friday and warmer, sunnier weather. With 300 purported days of sunshine in Central Oregon, the odds were in our favor.

Friday dawned mild and sunny with a chance of increased job security for area weather forecasters.

After writing his address on my hand, I picked up Map Guy and we were soon on our way north, U.S. Highway 97's ruts all but steering for me, making it a lot easier to concentrate on the studded tire debate we had.

As we approached on Northeast Crooked River Drive, and I took in the looming wall and its shades of rock, I realized I hadn't been to Smith Rock in far too long. It was a startling sight for sore eyes.

After I moved here 11 years ago, it was a semiregular destination, but with so many outdoor options around, I'd unwittingly — and unwisely — put Smith Rock in the “been there, done that” category.

After driving past about 30 cars that had us worrying for a second about crowds, we paid the requisite $5 parking fee and started down the main trail toward the river. Map Guy seemed embarrassed by the number of photos I began snapping, but as Tom Hanks says of life in the classic film “Joe vs. The Volcano”: “I forgot how big.” (That's almost the whole quote. He passes out from dehydration before he can get out many more words.)

We opted to take The Chute, the quicker, steeper shortcut down to the Crooked River. For those with more time to kill, or who want a more gradual descent, stick to the main trail and follow the switchback down to the Canyon Trail.

Though the parking lot had appeared discouragingly full, and there was a bit of foot traffic between the parking area and the river proper, we would have Misery Ridge Trail mostly to ourselves. In fact, Map Guy wondered aloud where the heck all the car owners were. Most of the people we'd seen closer to the parking lot sported backpacks full of climbing gear, and they had presumably headed to some of the park's popular climbing spots with names such as, and I quote, “Morning Glory Wall.”

We decided to do the hike counterclockwise, heading directly up Misery Ridge, continuing on to the Mesa Verde Trail and working our way back along the River Trail.

While it is a steep climb, Misery Ridge is hardly miserable; Mildly Uncomfortable would be a better name, though it would probably be a tight squeeze on trail markers. And compared to all the climbers scrambling up Smith Rock's vertical walls, we had it easy, what with the trail and its switchbacks.

On the way to the summit I spotted at least one small ledge that looked like an amateur could climb up to it, or at least pretend to by sneaking around the back of it, but alas, it was too steep and dangerous. Just looking at climbers induces vertigo in whatever part of my body is home to cowardice.

It took us about 30 minutes to reach the summit, albeit with plenty of stops for water, photos and exploring nooks and crannies.

At the top, Map Guy spoke to a woman who'd been ahead of us the entire way with her dog on a leash and was heading back down the same way she'd came.

“Is there a reason?” he asked.

“Um, I'm on a time crunch?” she said, the subtext being something like, “Um, none of your business?”

We told her that a friend who'd visited a few weeks earlier had told us the Mesa Verde Trail — the other way down — had been slick and muddy.

“I wouldn't think so. It should be perfect footing,” she said. “It's well worth the trip.”

She was right, anyway, but one highlight of this leg of the trip was when Map Guy stopped for a photo op and sat on the sandwich in his pocket. Also, we could see my car in the parking area so far and specklike below us.

We eagerly hiked along toward Monkey Face, the famed pillar of welded tuff so popular with climbers and people who like rocks that resemble things like monkeys. Monkey Face is a weathered and eroded column of hardened ash, according to author Sarah Garlick.

In her 2009 book “Flakes, Jugs, and Splitters: A Rock Climber's Guide to Geology,” Garlick writes, “The spectacular spires and walls of Oregon's Smith Rock State Park are carved out of 30-million-year-old welded tuff and rhyolite — rocks that formed from the ash explosions and lava flows of an eruptive volcano.” The 230-square-mile Crooked River Caldera “is all that is left of this ancient volcano.”

The Mesa Verde Trail turned out to be mud- and ice-free, yet just damp enough for the trail to be firm and free of dust. Perfect, in other words, but watch for spots of gravel. Also, watch for those weird stacks of rocks, or cairns, certain outdoors people like to make. There were a lot of these, and their presence offended Map Guy, who thought the existing rock formations should be enough to keep people happy.

He made a good point, and we made good time back along the relatively easy and level River Trail, with the occasional goose honking or duck quacking off to our right.

As we rounded the bends that would lead us back to the footbridge, more hikers approached us, and off to our left we saw those missing vehicle owners, clinging to the walls while clusters of their peers gazed up at them from below. No wonder so many of them wear tight-fitting clothes.

In all, the hike was about four miles, and took us about two hours. As the woman we spoke to had said, it was well worth the trip — one all of us should take more often, if only so we can remember “how big.”

If you go

Getting there: From Bend, take U.S. Highway 97 north to Terrebonne. Turn right at Smith Rock Way. Follow signs to the park.

Difficulty: While Misery Ridge is difficult, there are easy to moderate options including the River Trail.

Cost: $5 day-use permit or Oregon State Park pass

Contact: www.oregonstateparks.org/park_51.php or 541-548-7501