Driving through Central Oregon it’s just about impossible to miss Smith Rock State Park’s rocky cliff towers as they dominate the surrounding landscape. While the park’s main attention getter is its rock climbing, there is plenty to see walking around whether you have days or just hours there. Perhaps most notable (and at times most crowded) of the miles and miles of trails offered is Misery Ridge, a short but steep hike to one of the highest non-technical points in the park. While not quite as intense as scaling one of the cliff faces on a rope, Misery Ridge is known for its direct and unforgiving push along with the epic resulting views that lie at the top.
Start your adventure up by hiking down.
Surrounded by private land, rivers and more mountains, Smith Rock State Park aka “Smith,” consists of just one main road, the remainder being accessible by foot (or in some places, bike and / or horse.) A small visitor’s center sits right along the road marking and is a good place to start any adventure in the park, offering the mandatory day use permits, maps and updates on local conditions. Adjacent restrooms provide a last stop to fill up water — you’ll need it!
This visitor’s center also marks the direct route into the main area of the park where Misery Ridge and many other trails start from. Even the park’s own trail guides often describe hikes around this part of the park starting from the one and only bridge but keep in mind that it’s around a quarter-mile and a couple hundred vertical feet from the visitor’s center to there. To reach the top of Smith you’ll actually start by climbing down following either “The Chute,” a steep but direct path, or taking the longer “Canyon Trail” fork. As an FYI, the last real bathrooms (vault style) for the day are found just before the bridge.
Almost 722 up in less than three-quarters of a mile!
Walking over the river bridge, Misery Ridge’s west side trail is immediately visible as it switches up the rocky cliffs right across in front of you. From the bridge to the top is consistently up for the entire duration of the hike so as you look ahead, get use to it. For those who want a longer experience around more of the park and don’t mind a few added miles on their hike, head to your left (east) along the River Trail which will take you all the way to the backside of Misery Ridge.
Stepping onto the now marked Misery Ridge trail on a nice day (Smith’s exposed cliff trails and open peaks are no place to be playing on a truly bad day), you’ll almost certainly see groups of rock climbers around at various points along the rock walls. As you walk for the next few minutes, look around for anchor bolts placed into the rock noting climbing paths and say hi to the groups if you want to learn a little more about their sport; it’s a very friendly community, provided that people are not actually in route (and sometimes even then.)
As you ascend up the initial sets of switchbacks, a few additional marked climbing routes will come into view but soon you’ll clearly be out of climbing country as a few much longer switchbacks take you north, traversing across the mountain face and up into its heart. At something like 0.7 miles from the bridge to the top, nothing lasts long on this hike and its only a few minutes before the short switchbacks return.
There are a few sets of wooden steps built in on some of the more eroded parts of the trail but for the most part, it is dirt up and dirt down. In the hot summer months expect this to be dry, crumbly and dusty terrain that is just waiting to slip out under you. In the cold winter months, expect this to be covered in ice or even snow, especially as you move from open sections into shaded spots. With hundreds of feet of exposure off to your side, it’s worth paying attention as you go.
And before you know it you’re at the top.
Like I said, while the trail may push you (or may just be a fun little jaunt if you’re use to hiking up mountains on trails that don’t start more than 2/3rds up), the direct out-and-back path is hardly a long outing. After walking around a few large rocks and up a couple final switchbacks, it becomes clear that you are only steps away from the top of Misery Ridge. As you step out to the plateau, an expansive view is offered up immediately but before you stop to drop your pack and snap that photo, head up the rocks to your right for an even better perspective on it all (obligatory warning: stay back from the edge, twice as far back if it’s slippery out.)
Once you’ve had your fill of the eastern park view, continue on the now flat trail to the other side of Misery Ridge and the amazing perspective it offers. Off to your right and somewhat above you, you’ll likely spot other hikers scrambling up to the rocks to get yet another view down to the east side of the park though that’s completely your call to go visit. Dead ahead of you will be Monkey Face Rock, a free standing tower that’s amazing on its own and probably twice as cool to see with a climber standing up top. Further beyond that to the west will is Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood in the distance North of it and the Three Sisters, Broken Top and others to the South depending on how clear it is.
Assuming you’re only here for the out-and-back, quick tour, you’ll be heading back down the way you came, over the same switchbacks and traverses back past the climbing walls to the river. Once again, those looking for a longer tour can loop the hike and head down the back side of Misery Ridge and around the river via Mesa Verde Trail to the River Trail (several more miles FYI.) Either way you’ll end up back at the same bridge with a couple hundred feet of final hiking to make up it back to the visitor center, your car and a refill of your waterbottle.
Important: Preparing for the hike.
While Misery Ridge is not all that long as an out-and-back hike and certainly is not the biggest hike out there even as a loop, it’s important to be well prepared for the conditions that come with the desert terrain and with a nearly 1,000′ total vertical climb. In summer Smith Rock gets seriously hot during the day and with a lot of activity required for the hike up, you can overheat quickly, so hike in the cooler temps of the morning and carry plenty of water for each person. In winter it’s the opposite as temps plummet in the high desert and the trail often freezes up necessitating microspikes on some days and extra layers both for when you move and if you need to stop for a bit. Plan your day out at the visitor’s center and pack for the conditions assuming a bad day, not an easy one.
As for supplies, lodging and meals before or after, Smith is just a few minutes from the town of Terrebonne and beyond that the much bigger community of Redmond. Between the two you can find most anything you’ll need for the day or a place to stay for the night though there is also walk-in camping and showers within the park, space dependent.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Official Rating: Moderate
- Start point: Visitor Center / Main Parking Area
- Distance: ~1.5 R/T as an out and back, ~4 as a loop
- Duration: 1-2 hours as an out and back
- Climb: Around 900′ including the climb out of the valley
- Crowds: Moderate to Heavy
- Recommended time: Early morning in summer, mid morning in winter
- Facilities: Vault toilets at the river, full restrooms at the visitor’s center
- Parking: Road side and paved lots
- Fees: $5 / day per car
- Permits: None required
- http://smithrock.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Misery-Ridge-Trail-Elevation.png (from the bridge only)