Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Misery Ridge

Crooked River at Smith Rock
4 miles loop, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Oregon State Park fee required

For non-climbers, the astounding spires of Smith Rock can perhaps be best appreciated along the four-mile loop hike over Misery Ridge that travels through the heart of this rocky wonder in central Oregon's high desert. Smith Rock is a climbing mecca, one of the birthplaces of American sport climbing; it also an incredible natural feature with soaring rock pinnacles rising above the placid Crooked River. It is an absolute highlight of Central Oregon; don't let the fact that Smith Rock is just a state park deceive you into thinking that the area is somehow a second-rate natural area. While most reasonably fit hikers will enjoy the Misery Ridge Trail, it's not for everyone: portions of the trail are quite steep and narrow and are best done with boots with good traction and hiking poles. Many visitors to the park attempt the climb up and over Misery Ridge with minimal water and wearing inappropriate footwear, making the trail somewhat more dangerous than it should be.

I visited Smith Rock State Park on a Memorial Day weekend trip to Bend, Oregon. To reach Smith Rock from Bend, follow US 97 north from town past Redmond to Terrebonne and take Smith Rock Way east. Follow signs the rest of the way, turning left onto NE 17th St, left onto Wilcox Ave, and left again onto Crooked River Drive. Follow Crooked River Drive into the park and try to find parking near the visitor center. There are automated pay stations scattered throughout the park's many parking areas. As Smith Rock's fame has grown in recent years, expect crowds at the park.

From the visitor center, I followed the Rim Rock Trail north to a shelter on the rim of the canyon where the main trail descended into the canyon. This spot already delivered a stunning view of Shiprock, a prominent nearby formation, and of the many other buttresses and pinnacles of Smith Rock. The Crooked River flowed lazily around the foot of the tuff spires. Smith Rock's geology differs from the surrounding area: while this part of Oregon is dominated by flood basalts, Smith Rock itself is composed of much older tuff formed by the collapse of an ancient caldera. Erosion by the Crooked River has exposed the Smith Rock tuff and carved it into its current dramatic form.

Crooked River and Smith Rock
I descended to the Crooked River Bridge via the Canyon Trail, which was a broad emergency road and had a much gentler grade than the steeper Chute Trail. The Canyon Trail was also substantially quieter than the Chute Trail, which most visitors were using to access the bridge. I was glad to check out the Canyon Trail, as it provided some unique and beautiful perspectives on Shiprock.

Smith Rock
At the base of the canyon, the Canyon Trail joined back up with the Chute Trail and passed a round, manicured grassy lawn that apparently serves as a helipad. I crossed the bridge over the Crooked River and found myself at the foot of the towering 600-foot cliffs of Smith Rock.

There are two options for completing the Misery Ridge loop: heading clockwise and saving the Misery Ridge climb for later, or hiking counterclockwise and tackling Misery Ridge first. I chose to get the uphill over with early and took the Misery Ridge Trail at the fork after crossing the bridge.

The Misery Ridge Trail wasted no time, immediately jumping into a steep switchback ascent up the slopes of the rock. The rock faces above the trail were dotted with climbers challenging the many routes on Smith Rock's tuff. I found many small caves in the tuff itself, which reminded me of the similar rock found at New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument, where Puebloan peoples carved cavetes into the tuff of the Jemez Caldera. As I followed the switchbacks uphill, the views improved and I soon had a great overview of Shiprock, the Crooked River, and the trails leading down into the canyon from the parking lot across the river.

Crooked River Canyon, Shiprock
After completing the first set of switchbacks, the trail began to traverse to the north, wrapping around the side of the rock. This soon brought me to the northeast side of Misery Ridge, where the trail overlooked a sharp bend in the Crooked River as it flowed past a particularly notable rock tower called the Monument.

Monument at Smith Rock
The trail continued climbing steeply, embarking on a second set of switchbacks as it began to head up a break in the cliffs towards the top of Misery Ridge. As I climbed up, views improved with a line of peaks emerging behind Misery Ridge and with more and more of the Terrebonne countryside coming into view.

Crooked River flows below Monument
After a sustained climb from the bridge, the trail finally leveled out upon reaching the crest of Misery Ridge. A large rock here overlooked the terrain to the east and was a popular lunch spot: from here, I could look down to see the bend in the Crooked River, Monument, Newberry Volcano in the distance to the south, and Mount Hood to the distance in the north.

Mount Hood in the distance
The true summit was off of the main trail; multiple spur trails led towards the high point of Misery Ridge. While I came slightly short of reaching the true high point, I scrambled my way up a use path to one of the many rocks with almost 360-views just below the highest rock. The panorama here was excellent: in addition the bird's eye view of all of Smith Rock and of the Crooked River's circuitous path, this spot also provided views of the Cascade volcanoes on the western horizon. Mount Bachelor, Broken Top, the Three Sisters, Mount Washington, Black Butte, and Mount Jefferson formed the western skyline. Just beyond the volcanoes was the cloud layer blanketing the western Cascades, which had missed out on the glorious sun east of the mountains. Between Smith Rock and the Cascades were green fields in the desert watered by the plentiful melting snows of the mountains.

Broken Top and the Three Sisters and the irrigated Oregon high desert
Broken Top, Mount Bachelor, and Smith Rock
Mount Jefferson
The trail delivered consistently good views as it crossed the crest of Misery Ridge. On the northwest side of the ridge, the trail began to descend down the ridge. Here, views were still spectacular: I could see the Crooked River flowing to the north below the cliffs of Smith Rock with Black Butte, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood rising on the horizon. Right in front of me stood a massive free-standing rock formation, the Monkey Face. A look at the top of this particular rock tower made the name self-explanatory: the upper portion of the rock bore a striking resemblance to a monkey's head.

Monkey Face with Black Butte, Mount Jefferson, and the Crooked River
The descent from Misery Ridge featured constant views of Monkey Face and the Crooked River as the trail made a series of switchbacks. One of the more unique views of this scene was from a small rock cave directly off the trail: a cavity had been eroded into the heart of a boulder, creating a crawl space that easily accommodates two people.

Monkey Face from a small rock cave
 Monkey Face is one of the most popular climbing objectives in the park and was packed with climbers ascending the east face and rappelling down from the nose/mouth area when I visited.

Rappelling down and climbing up Monkey Face
The Misery Ridge Trail intersected with the Mesa Verde Trail at the base of Monkey Face. Here, the right fork led towards the First Kiss wall; I took the left fork, which followed the base of the Mesa Verde Wall as the trail gradually descended towards the Crooked River. The higher stretch of the Mesa Verde Trail featured beautiful views of Smith Rock's spires rising above the Crooked River with the Three Sisters and Broken Top in the distance. One of the more disconcerting sights on the hike occurred on the Mesa Verde Trail: an emergency stretcher was installed by the trail here, a reminder of the occasional dangers of sport climbing.

Crooked River, Smith Rock, Three Sisters
The Mesa Verde Trail eventually made its way down to the level of the Crooked River, where it intersected the River Trail. I followed the River Trail south as it made its way around the southern tip of Smith Rock. The riverside views here were excellent: the late afternoon sun lit up Monkey Face and many of the other spires on the western side of Smith Rock.

Crooked River and Monkey Face
The trail followed the river upstream, rounding the southern tip of Smith Rock. As the trail wrapped around towards the north, Shiprock came back into view: I was nearing the end of the loop. The low angle of the evening sun created dramatic lighting over this landscape of outcrops.

Crooked River reflections
While there were many extraordinary rock forms at Smith Rock, I found the Smith Rock Group and the Phoenix Buttress to be among the most inspiring and dramatic forms. The spires here soared above the Crooked River and, although smaller in scale, reminded me of the cliffs of Zion and Yosemite.

Phoenix Buttress of Smith Rock
The stretch of rockwall just south of Shiprock was packed with climbers, with tens of groups attempting the variety of different routes up the sides of Smith Rock. After passing Shiprock, I arrived back at the footbridge and closed the loop. After crossing back over the bridge on the Crooked River, I took the steeper Chute Trail back uphill to the Rim Rock Trail and the parking area.

This is a remarkable hiking trail and an exceptionally beautiful destination. While hikers visiting Smith Rock won't be able to avoid the crowds, sharing the trail with hundreds of others is worth it for such a unique hike.

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