Travel: St. Helens native speaks to value of central Oregon's Smith Rock

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - A climber scales the face of one of Smith Rock's sport routes off the Misery Ridge trail. While Columbia County has plenty to offer for outdoor enthusiasts in the way of fishing, kayaking, hunting, camping and biking, a three-hour road trip southeast reveals more of Oregon’s rugged gems sought by niche adventurers and hobbyists.

Smith Rock, located in central Oregon’s high desert, about 25 miles north of Bend off Highway 97, attracts day-hikers as well as novice and expert rock climbers.

Walls of compressed volcanic ash shoot up more than 500 feet from the relatively flat desert landscape. Outlining the harsh cliffs is the Crooked River, a tributary of the Deschutes River.

While the area is best known for its hundreds of climbing routes, Smith Rock is also latticed with a number of hiking trails, the most popular is Misery Ridge, a moderate three-mile loop with an 840-foot cumulative elevation gain.

Luke Henderson, a Columbia County native who graduated from St. Helens High School in 2012, said as far as rock climbing goes in Oregon, Smith Rock can’t be beat.

“There’s a lot of climbing there and you can always find something,” Henderson said. “Smith is just a different class. There’s just so much to do there and it’s well-managed.”

Henderson said he was introduced to the world of climbing after first visiting The Vault Climbing Gym and Fitness Center in St. Helens. Now, he’s a sophomore at Oregon State University studying chemical engineering. Henderson said he returns home to St. Helens during the summer.

“It was late my freshman year or early sophomore year [of high school] when I started climbing,” he said. “My mentor when I started was big on getting people climbing outside the gym because it’s a whole different world. It’s great.”

As far as climbing Smith Rock, Henderson said the area features routes for climbers of all levels. While some climbers simply “boulder” — a practice of climbing to only low heights that does not requiring a rope — Smith Rock also offers a number of routes for sport climbing. Henderson said sport climbing routes at Smith Rock feature pre-drilled bolts in the wall in which climbers can secure themselves as they make their ascent.

Some of Smith Rock’s more well-known features, such as Monkey Face — a 350-foot pillar overhanging on all sides, containing some of the most difficult climbing routes in the world — require avid climbers to arrive early or late in the day, as lines can form behind the more popular routes, Henderson said.

Smith Rock also features a number of routes Henderson referred to as traditional or “trad” routes. Those routes, he said, require climbers to find cracks in the wall in which to secure themselves with anchors or knots before climbing higher. One climber at Smith Rock this month said climbers can make it from the bottom to the top of some of the cliffs using trad routes.

While serious climbers may have to wait their turn, day-hikers and those who simply want to do some bouldering can jump right in. But being that it’s a desert with a dry and hot climate, hikers should be prepared with plenty of water and sun protection. Dogs are allowed on all the park’s trails, but often tire out before completing hikes due to the heat. Many seem to force their owners to retreat to the cool waters of the Crooked River before cresting Misery Ridge.

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