- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2017

TERREBONNE, Ore. (AP) - It was midweek in mid-February, so I figured the trail up Smith Rock State Park’s Misery Ridge would be pretty much free and clear of other hikers and sightseers.

I was wrong.

Dozens of others were making their way up the trail, which follows switchbacks to the top of the ridge. On this day, the trail was muddy and icy.

I should not have been surprised by the company, as plans are in the works to help deal with the increase in crowds at Smith Rock State Park in recent years.

Even in the middle of the snowiest winter in decades, outdoors enthusiasts are flocking to the park.

According to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, in 2015 about 750,000 guests visited the park during the day and about 22,000 stayed overnight - a significant increase from 2002, when about 460,000 visited during the day and about 10,000 stayed overnight.

Meetings in Redmond and Portland last month initiated the state parks department’s process to update Smith Rock’s 1991 master plan. The public gave its input on future plans for Smith Rock, including some ideas to deal with the crowds.

“The feedback from the park users, people are really interested in the whole process,” says Josie Barnum, park ranger at Smith Rock. “It’s a really well-loved park. We don’t have anything forecast yet as far as work on the ground. It’s more of an information-gathering phase right now.”

Barnum adds that even last month, when the park had 2 to 3 feet of snow on the ground, many folks were out snowshoeing and cross-country skiing at Smith Rock.

While winter is not typically as crowded as the most popular seasons of fall and spring, Smith Rock does offer wintertime hiking opportunities that cannot be found at higher elevations in Central Oregon. And on dry winter days, numerous rock climbers can be seen clinging to the towering beige and red walls at Smith Rock.

“On a weekend when it’s crowded (at Mt. Bachelor ski area) and people aren’t skiing but they want to come out and recreate outside, Smith Rock is a good local, close-to-town place to do that,” Barnum says. “And rock gyms have become pretty popular. I think we’re getting a lot of new interest in rock climbing (at Smith Rock) via the climbing gyms.”

Despite the crowds at Smith Rock, Misery Ridge remains a good option for hiking in Central Oregon this time of year.

On a mostly sunny day last week I drove the 35 miles north from Bend to Smith Rock and paid the required $5 for daily parking.

The Misery Ridge Trail starts just across the footbridge that spans the Crooked River in the main area of the park. The trail cuts back and forth steeply up the hillside, offering sprawling views to the northeast toward Gray Butte.

“People love Misery Ridge, until they get about halfway up and then they’re like, ‘Why did I do this?,’” Barnum says. “I’d say that and the River Trail are the two most hiked trails in the park.”

Hikers descending Misery Ridge were taking their time and choosing their steps wisely. Shaded spots along the trails at Smith Rock will likely still have areas of snow, ice and/or mud for some time to come, and hikers should be prepared for such conditions.

Once I reached the top of Misery Ridge, I glanced out at the small town of Terrebonne and the snow-covered Cascade peaks, which lined nearly the entire western horizon.

I hiked down to an area called the “diving board,” directly across from the top of Monkey Face, a 300-foot rock spire and the most well-known rock feature at the park.

From the top of Misery Ridge, the trail continues down the other side along switchbacks near Monkey Face. Hikers can link up to the Mesa Verde Trail and then the River Trail, which loops back around to the main area of the park.

But the steep trail down toward the river was covered in ice, and I had no traction devices. I decided not to attempt it as it looked a little too sketchy and slippery. Barnum recommends that hikers use traction devices - such as Yaktrax or screws in their shoes - for hiking at Smith Rock this time of year.

“We’re just asking people to be prepared for their activity,” she says. “Even though it’s cooler, they should still bring lots of water. And dress in warm layers and anticipate the ice.”

Other hiking options at Smith Rock include the Summit Loop, which is a longer, full-day hike that starts with a trek along the Wolf Tree Trail followed by a long climb up Burma Road. The relatively new Summit route is now well-signed, but it will likely have patches of snow and ice like Misery Ridge.

An easier hiking option is the Rim Trail, a mostly flat path that skirts the parking area.

As the snow and ice continue to thaw and spring approaches, more and more hikers, climbers and mountain bikers will make trips to Smith Rock.

But even with increasing crowds and tourism, a sunny day in midwinter atop Misery Ridge is tough to beat.


The original story can be found on The Bulletin’s website: https://bit.ly/2lpDTFm


Information from: The Bulletin, https://www.bendbulletin.com

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