Sometimes the best way to approach climbing is by not doing it at all. Most people don’t end up at the iconic landmark of Smith Rock to not climb though. The parking lot is full of cars with bumper stickers as pledges of climbing radness. Various congregations of couples and groups move out like infantry in brighter backpacks and approach shoes, cams clanking at their sides.
What Smith Rock also has is a trail network that, if you can run the mile it takes to get past the crowds, is a playground for runners and mountain bikers. Particularly if you have a love of switchbacks and views of the Cascade Range. Before I ever started climbing, I was the kind of runner who would stop at the base of random geological formations because they had a top, and running to the top of things just seemed like a good idea. Likely, this is how I actually took up climbing (and GPS navigation). It is also how I discovered Smith for its many other wonders.
Recently I was driving from California to Idaho and somehow this time I noticed Smith Rock has a top. Recalling that I had running shoes (and a couple of bikes and skis and camping gear) in my car, I stopped to explore. Getting lost before spending the day on the road seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t climbing season, so I was pretty much the only car in the lot. I tied my shoes, looked at a trail map, and pitter-pattered my way down the canyon. It’s hard to get lost on a rock sticking out of the middle of a high desert.
There are a few different routes you can take on Smith once you cross the river, rock formations towering over you. The aptly named Misery Hill takes you straight over the top of the rocks in a series of jagged switchbacks. It is instant gratification as the view exponentially improves with each step, the rock and Crooked River unfolding below you. Upon summiting, you’ll be staring out at the peaks of the Cascades, from Bachelor to Hood, likely mocking your ascent from a distance. Then you drop down the back side, winding your way down the terrain and toward the familiar climbing routes of Monkey Face. If you’re not a climber, you’ll wonder why people climb that sort of thing and how. If you are a climber, you’ll just wonder how.
The trail hugs the shore of the river, quietly meandering through the canyon, making a complete circle in just under five miles. If you haven’t gained enough elevation, there’s always the quick jaunt out of the canyon to threaten cardiac arrest. Which can also be achieved by taking the long route – an eight mile loop that climbs out of and over the canyon up Burma Road. The views: Spectacular, once you’re done vomiting on your shoes. Apparently this 16% grade is also bikeable by some and great access to more trails (and climbing routes) behind Smith. This longer route is almost always devoid of traffic. On busy days and the weekends, I have seen people beyond the summit, but often the few miles of pristine dirt trails down to the river are an escape from the common crowds on the front. Occasionally, a grinning biker will whiz by and you’ll want to high-five them like you’re sharing the undiscovered secrets of Smith.
Running here has become my roadside attraction over the years, certainly my favorite rest stop in the West. Now sometimes I show up there with my climbing gear too, but never without my shoes. Running along the river in the morning light offers a perspective you don’t get with your face four inches from the rock. And after all, isn’t getting out all about getting new perspective? //