camping & hiking: Smith Rock State Park
Smith Rock State Park is located in the high desert of Central Oregon. An internationally renowned location for rock climbing, the park also has plenty of trails for hikers who want to experience the majestic rock scenery.
This post is a compilation of many different trips to Smith Rock. The high desert climate is a great destination for camping in the spring and fall.
The Crooked River winds through the park, creating a picturesque and completely unique setting for some of the best rock climbing in America and a few outstanding hikes as well. The park has many miles of trails that provide hikers with striking views of the river, the rock formations, and the surrounding landscape.
Like so many Pacific Northwest landscapes, these sheer cliffs of tuff and basalt were formed by volcanic activity, dating back about 30 million years. Eventually, the Crooked River cut its way through the rock to create the river canyon we have today, which rests beneath jagged, reddish colored rocks that tower some 800 feet above the pristine river at their base.
There’s no mistaking that this is the high desert, because the landscape is one of sagebrush and Ponderosa pine, and the summers can be quite hot. For heat lovers, summer may be the best time to visit, but for those who prefer cooler weather, spring and autumn bring a more temperate climate to this rugged wonder, when the sun is still bright, but the air is cooler and wildlife is more abundant… or at least more apparent.
Smith Rock State Park provides a day-use area that’s open year-round and includes a visitor center, restrooms, and picnic facilities. There’s also a tent-only campground, which offers outstanding views of the cliffs and valley.
The Climber’s Bivouac is an open area with walk-in campsites near the rim overlooking the park. The facilities include a restroom with hot showers, cell phone charging station, and a separate area for cooking (the use of stoves is not allowed in the tent area). When we arrived on a Saturday in March around noon, the day use parking areas were already full, and the parking at the campground was filling up fast. Spring is a busy season here, with rock climbers taking advantage of the cooler temperatures. The campground fee is $5 per person per night, payable at the automated pay station at the campground entrance.
Note that most of the rim is closed in the spring due to bald eagles that nest every year in a tall Ponderosa Pine on the slope next to the camp area. Later in the season, it’s open and a prime area to set up camp. Get there early to snag one of these spots with jaw-dropping views of the crags.
Misery Ridge loop hike
4.6 miles 1,000 ft. gain
The Misery Ridge and River Trails showcase the best highlights of the park, winding around the rock formations next to the river, and then all the way to
the top, with sweeping vistas in all directions.
To avoid the heat of the high desert during the summer months, do this hike early in the day, or visit during the spring or fall. From the main parking lot, take the Rim Rock Trail, winding around the park’s east rim with great views into the river canyon before heading back towards the park’s visitors center. Past the buildings, take the The Chute Trail into the river canyon. Cross the bridge and turn left on the River Trail – the park’s rangers are advising people to hike the loop in this direction instead of heading up the east side of the Misery Ridge Trail directly across from the bridge. The west side is steeper, with a lot of scree (loose rock) on the trail, so it’s easier to hike up this section than it is to come down on the way back.
Hiking beside the river as it twists and turns its way through the craggy rocks, this section of trail is close to several popular rock climbing areas, perfect for watching the rock climbers make their way up the sheer rock faces. To get an even closer view, there are many side trails and steps leading up to the routes used by the climbers.
Rounding the southern tip of the park, the trail forks just below Asterisk Pass. At that point, take the Mesa Verde Trail up towards Monkey Face. Passing next to the base of Monkey Face, it is common to see climbers working their way up the face of this dramatic spire.
The next section of trail is Misery Ridge, with steep, scree-covered switchbacks heading all the way to the top. Once at the top, soak in the stunning views of the Cascades, including Mount Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, Black Butte, North Sister, Middle Sister, South Sister, Broken Top, and Mount Bachelor.
At the top of Misery Ridge, ancient gnarled juniper trees, small sage shrubs, and wildflowers are scattered across a wide expanse of the rocky ridge. A side trail leads to an up front view of Monkey Face. With plenty of space to spread out, most people spend a bit of time at top to soak in the views before heading back down.
Heading down the northeast side of Misery Ridge, the trail has a combination of switchbacks and steep staircases, passing by some of the busier rock climbing sections of the park. Cross the river on the bridge again and head back up The Chute and the Rim Rock Trail to return to the parking lot.
Hiking the Summit Trail loop
7.2 miles 1,200 ft. gain
Starting at the campground, take the Rim Rock Trail to the Chute, cross the bridge and take the Wolf Tree Trail around to the Burma Road. The crowds thin out in this section of the park. Burma Road is visible from most of the park and looks like a giant zigzag on the side of a massive hill. It’s also fully exposed with no shade and can be very hot so it’s good to get an early start on this section.
At the top of the Burma Road, enjoy expansive views of Smith Rock and the Cascades. On clear days you can see Mount Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, North Sister, Middle Sister, South Sister, and Broken Top.
From here, take the Summit Trail and drop into a canyon behind the park’s famous spires. The trail switchbacks several times, then leads to views looking into the park.
Continuing on the trail, it gradually heads down to connect with the Mesa Verde and River Trails. From this point, you can continue on the River Trail and connect back to the Canyon Trail after crossing the bridge. A shorter but more difficult loop can be done by going up and over Misery Ridge.