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Hikes: Smith Rock

The air was cool and crisp as we headed south out of Bend. The temperature, slated to rise to the mid 80’s, was perfect for our Anniversary Hike, celebrating our 33 years together. We wanted to climb Smith Rock and then go scout out the airport in Madras for the eclipse of 2017.

Smith Rock juts straight up from a lava encroached plain in Central Oregon. It’s orange, blue, and florescent green tinted cliffs look like spinnaker sails on the prow of a ship. It is THE destination spot for thousands of avid rock climbers in the region. We were there for the hiking, yet Smith Rock claims to be the most popular state park for mountaineering-type climbs in the country. The Park’s lava beds and basalt ledges are set apart from the rest of the landscape by the Crooked River, which creates a natural, protective moat around the Rock.

We traversed the first switch backs easily, making it from parking lot to the top of the trail in about 30 minutes. Called Misery Ridge, it did not live up to its name. The 900 foot climb from the river’s edge to the plateau seemed steep, but it was surprisingly steady with the solid trail and well maintained wooden stairs up the steepest sections. The view going down the back side of the mountain was beautiful and Tracy and I rested at First Kiss to watch the early morning climbers scaling Monkey Face, which does look like the silhouette of a beast from the Planet of the Apes. The views of the Cascades (Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, Mount Adams and others) in the distance were magnificent, covered with snow and topped by morning clouds.

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The hike is rated as “moderate,” in most of the guidebooks: 3.6-mile loop to the headland’s tip gains nearly one thousand feet of elevation. The flowers were fully in bloom with the balsamroot, yarrow, sagebrush and cinqfoil accenting the paths.

We watched the fly fisherman casting, the river otter sunbathing, the Red-Wing Blackbird squawking, and the Great Blue Heron preening in the Crooked River. As we rounded the bend in the river we came to three side trails signed for “The Dihedrals” and “Asterisk Pass.” These paths climb up stairs and end at cliffs where climbers dangle, jangling their gear. These climbers were in larger and larger groups as the morning progressed to day. From the canyon floor, the dihedrals look like those volcanic basalt bars found at Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California.

Geology: Forming the western lava flows of the Ochoco Mountains, Smith Rock was formed by the welded ash of the volcano eruptions, known as rhyolite. This ash was laid down after explosions from the Old Cascades, which settled in a large inland sea. The solid rock of Smith Rock was fused by intense heat and pressure to form the rocky exterior. The resulting formation is popular with climbers because it does not easily crumble. More recent lava flows from about 10,000 years ago pushed the Crooked River up against Smith Rock and left the basalt rimrock of the river’s southern shoreline.

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While hiking on the Mesa Verde trail, we watched for and spotted the plentiful bird life: Black-and-white Magpies, Ravens, Canada Geese, Pigeons, Osprey Falcons, Sparrows, and Eagles. The most fun birds to watch, however, were the Violet-Green Swallows, who foraged for food all across the cliff faces.

The Mesa Verde Trail passes below Monkey Face and shows off the other great climbing routes on the western edge of Smith Rock. We strolled along the river at a leisurely pace and arrived back at the footbridge in time to hear a State Park ranger opine about the volcanoes that formed this landmark.

We should have walked some additional miles on the Burma Road on the way out, but we found ourselves more attuned to the sales going on at REI and preparing for our upcoming trip on the Camino. We scoped out the airport in Madras, a vast waste land of treeless rubble and dry grass. We called our friend, Stanley Fertig, gave him the upshot on the places to stay in Madras and Bend and then drove home.

As we headed back to Portland, we marveled at the amazing natural beauty of Oregon, from Gearhart to the Snake River Gorge, and the beauty of Smith Rock in this, our adopted home state.