Sparrows and golden eagles dip and soar around the jagged peaks of the cliffs. Climbers from all over the world scale the towering slabs of tan, cinnamon, red, and turquoise. Down in the canyon, small Vs of ducks fly up the Crooked River, squawking loudly, bending to stay in the river’s path. Everything and everyone is at play here – Smith Rocks is a giant playground for all living things.
The Earth made this playground 1.2 million years ago when basalt lava flows from the Newberry volcano oozed down the Crooked River Basin, leaving low cliffs on one side of the river. A 14 million-year-old tuff spine towers up the other, the remains of one piece of a vast volcanic system centered around Gray Butte to the northeast, filled with pockets and huecos that climbers dream about and pigeons nest in.
On the west side of the tuff spine is a column known as the Monkey Face, a Pez dispenser-shaped rock with a well-placed cave and features that resemble a face. The multi-pitch climb up the Monkey Face is a classic rock climb, including a 5.7 start out of the monkey’s mouth that is probably the most exposed of its rating. In the afternoons on a sunny weekend day, a row of tiny people can be seen on the top of the monkey’s head.
There are more than 1000 traditional and sport routes at Smith Rock. It is home to the world’s first 5.14 route, To Bolt or Not to Be. The climbing is known for being on the difficult end of ratings. Due to erosion and craziness, the first bolts on many climbs are 20 feet or higher off the ground. This is known as a “sporty” start, and Smith is famous for them. Some of the most classic routes are Chain Reaction, Phoenix, and Magic Light, but of course every climber will give a different answer on that.
Hundreds of feet above the winding river canyon, flocks of swallows battle golden eagles around the jagged peaks of rock, occasionally dropping a bright yellow feather to the trail – a souvenir of the fantastic show. Pigeon coos echo in cracks, mallard couples paddle lazily upstream at sunset, and blue herons stand as still as rocks on the edges of the river.
During most of the season, visitors will routinely be frozen in their tracks at the heart-stopping rattle of a snake. Rattlesnakes are common, and everyone is encouraged to stay on trails no matter what, although the snakes tend to disobey this rule more often than the people. Bull snakes and sagebrush lizards sun themselves on the hot rocks and generally allow hikers a brief look before they skitter off into hiding.
Circling the bottom of the rocks is a 5.5-mile trail that winds lazily along the river bank, bringing you underneath shimmering turquoise towers and then out onto the hilly grasslands, where you can see horse pastures and even a Spanish-style villa on top of the butte. The trail from the parking lot to the hike is very steep, layered with gravel and embedded rocks. It’s a classic Smith experience to finish up a day of climbing at dusk, cross the bridge, and then have to muscle up the final hill to the cars, campgrounds, and dinner.
For every type of outdoor enthusiast, Smith Rock offers a breathtaking adventure.