TERREBONE, Ore. — A visit to Smith Rock State Park is a rite of spring.
The volcanic crags and classic Western scenery make the park one of the most scenic in the Oregon park system (though coastal park lovers will argue that point).
The sweet smell of Western juniper and sagebrush, the honking of nesting Canada geese and the occasional lucky sighting of a river otter greet visitors during spring.
The 651-acre park in central Oregon’s high desert not far from Redmond draws about 500,000 annual visitors. At the same visitation rate per acre, Washington’s Olympic National Park, the busiest park in the Northwest, would need to pack in 70 million visitors (it gets 2.8 million) to keep up with Smith Rock.
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Sounds like Smith Rock would be overrun. But somehow it’s not.
Still, the parking lot is often full on peak days, and latecomers are pretty much out of luck. Drivers can circle the road, but they can’t park.
And as of this month, there’s more to lure visitors, with the grand opening of the park’s new welcome center and completion of a hiking trail that just may be the best day-hike loop in the state.
“At some parks, visitors tend to congregate in a single area,’’ said Scott Brown, park manager for the past three years. “Here at Smith Rock, visitors disperse throughout the park.’’
A big reason for that are the technical rock climbers, who make up about half the park’s visitors. The climbers have 1,800 routes on which to test their upward mobility.
Climbers’ voices echo among the crags throughout the park. Vertical walls that would be scenic backdrops in other parks are likely to have several people clinging to them at Smith Rock.
This gives a hiker constant diversion along the trail: first, to find where the voices are coming from, then to stare in awe while marveling how climbers got up there and how they are going to get down safely.
The park manager says the number of climbers has held steady since the mid-1980s when the park became a world-class climbing destination. Most of the increase in use has been driven by the population expansion in central Oregon.
Locals come to ride mountain bikes and look for wildlife with their youngsters and a dog or two on leash.
The park’s classic cliff is the 400-foot Monkey Face, accessible via a 2-mile hike on River Trail. Hikers can view the climbing action from the bottom, along Mesa Verde Trail, or take it in from the top, just off Misery Ridge Trail.
The top of Monkey Face, from certain angles, looks amazingly like its namesake. Climbers use the mouth and eye sockets to rest after ascending vertical walls below.
New 8-mile loop
The upper view of Monkey Face is the reward for hiking a steep loop trail that earns the “misery’’ in the name. That 4-mile loop is still there, but now it makes up an inner loop within a new 8-mile circuit.
The longer, less steep loop opened recently after construction of the Summit Ridge Trail. This trail replaces a user-made path, which trampled the landscape, as it connects Burma Road with River Trail on the park’s north side.
The new trail would not have been possible without Ranch of the Canyons granting the Deschutes Land Trust a conservation easement across private land for about 1,000 feet of trail.
The new trail construction is excellent and includes rehabilitation of the trampled area along the rim. Funded by federal recreation and trail grants, the new trail keeps hikers farther away from the park’s nesting pair of golden eagles, which last year fledged a chick.
You don’t have to be able to hike the 8-mile loop to love Smith Rock.
“I would like to compare this place’s beauty with anywhere in the world,’’ said Ruth Wilson, 77, who visits the park regularly from her nearby home at Crooked River Ranch. “You never see anybody here who is not smiling. This is such a glorious spot.’’