Smith Rock is one of those places where one’s attention is drawn to a few spots, while missing many of the gems in the park. Famous as a rock climbing destination for decades, Smith is a place touched by outdoor magic. It’s why I moved to nearby Bend when I was 19. That stay didn’t last long, but over the years, I continued visiting Smith regularly until the past decade. When I drove to the park last Saturday, I wanted a different experience. I went not as a climber but a simple hiker who likes to avoid the crowds. And crowds there were. Parking was a minor adventure. The regular lots were full before 10 a.m. Of course, it was the first really nice day in weeks, which happened to coincide with the beginning of Oregon’s spring break. Once I got my parking spot and bought a day pass, I geared up and hiked to the river crossing below the massive Picnic Lunch Wall. Unlike most people, I turned upstream at the junction there. I was headed toward Staender Ridge and the Marsupial Crags. It was a part of the park I’d never visited.
The cliffs are stupendous, and while not all crags are appealing for climbers, the overall setting is stunning. Partway up the ridge, there was the dry gulch of an old canal stemming from the 1940s. Above that, the Marsupial Crags beckoned a few climbers. They certainly looked worthy of the longer approach hike. I continued up the road to the saddle, and found myself sweating. It was fascinating to skirt behind cliffs I’d seen so many times from below, now looking way down on the popular climbing areas. Everything seemed less consequential from that height.
Leaving the saddle, I took the Summit Trail along the backside of the cliffs, heading west. Memories of youthful climbing exploits washed over my mind as I soaked in the views of distant peaks. The South Sister, Middle Sister, Mount Jefferson. There had been so many memorable climbs at Smith itself, including the time I broke my leg. Now my joints creak when I hike a stiff hill. All around me, amazing cliffs, crags, and spires in a variety of hues. I could have gawked for hours. The trail descends in switchbacks through sage and juniper draped slopes, crossing through private land as the grade tapered, then turned to parallel the Crooked River, heading back upstream. In moments, the famous Monkey Face was visible-okay, the back of the monkey’s head.
As I passed a series of minor cliffs, the views of Monkey Face improved, and I could hear a group of climbers hundreds of feet up as they negotiated the final pitch of a route. Right at the northwest base of the tower, the river trail intersected with the Misery Ridge Trail, and the crowds grew almost exponentially, a mix of climbers and tourists who didn’t even look prepared to hike. I sauntered past Mesa Verde wall and Spiderman Buttress to the notch where climbers cross the rocky ridge in a shortcut which bypasses a mile of trail where the river does a sharp bend, cliffs soaring above it. Scrambling over Asterisk Pass never bothered me when I was in my twenties, but now, years later, I had to hesitate before climbing over it. It is not for everyone. Once I crossed, I was looking at the heart of the Smith, the other crags that made it famous: the Christian Brothers, the Dihedrals, and Morning Glory Wall. Climbers were everywhere. I’d never seen such crowds. Call it sour grapes, but it took away a little bit of the mystique the place used to hold for me. Okay, not much. I had seen way too many cool things in a a few hours. But don’t listen to me. Just ask the climbers. Or the geese.
Even if I can’t do all the same things I did twenty years ago, Smith is an awesome place to visit. I recommend it to any Pacific Northwest visitors who love the outdoors. Get there early if the weather is nice, or plan on parking far away. I hope I’ll return soon.
Years ago, I spent two stints in Bend, Oregon. Although the town has changed a lot, the region holds a place in my heart, from Smith Rock State Park to the Deschutes River and to the Three Sisters Wilderness and Mount Bachelor. So it was great to visit there last weekend, taking a few hikes, visiting family, and relaxing. I had one fantastic hike at Smith Rock, and that night took a spontaneous night hike with my nephew, scaling Pilot Butte to see the lights of the small city. There’s so much I could include! For now, I will touch on the walks we took along the Deschutes River north of town.
Access to the river trail is easy, and the walking is pleasing if not challenging. It’s perfect for runners, and I notice a few bike tracks, too. The landscape is dotted with sagebrush, junipers, ponderosa pines, and lots of rock. I found a few basaltic crags worthy of scrambling, and I have no doubt that there is much more to explore nearby. This is still a magical area.