Travelogue Oregon: Sweet singletrack at Smith Rock

Rock climber's paradise is a great place for cyclists, too

Travel Oregon
A commanding view of Smith Rock State Park from halfway up Burma Road.

A commanding view of Smith Rock State Park from halfway up Burma Road (click to enlarge).

Editor’s Note: This post is courtesy of Travel Oregon.

The day before heading north from Bend about an hour to ride Smith Rock State Park, my friend Jeff shared some local trail wisdom. He clued me in on the 24-mile Smith Rock Trail Loop with 3,700 feet of climbing combining BLM land and Smith Rock State Park. With excitement brewing, I drove through town of Terrebonne and across an incredibly deep chasm above the Crooked River on Highway 97 before reaching Henderson Flat, where it was time to ride.

The Crooked River Gorge just north of Terrebonne is 300 feet deep – an impassible obstacle before the dawn of modern bridge building.

The Crooked River Gorge just north of Terrebonne was an impassible obstacle before the dawn of modern bridge building (click to enlarge).

Once on bike, I rode up the Ridge Rider Cole Loop, a characteristic high desert trail running through open rangeland featuring soft, sandy soil and landscape dominated by juniper trees. The initial goal was to reach the shoulder of Gray Butte, a pointy peak topped by a radio tower. As I climbed, the skies above grew darker. Being on the shoulder of the tallest mountain in the area was not an ideal place to be should thunder begin rumbling. I made haste over the crest and shot down Gray Butte Trail, a fast and flowing singletrack peppered with loose volcanic rock.

With Gray Butte in the background, Summit Trail descends a series of tight and fun switchbacks down into Smith Rock State Park.

With Gray Butte in the background, Summit Trail descends a series of tight switchbacks into Smith Rock State Park (click to enlarge).

I eventually reached the overlook of Smith Rock State Park. To my left was Burma Road, a steep, straight fire road ascending from the Crooked River canyon. To my right was Summit Trail, a singletrack that twisted gently down to the river. The decision was obvious as I negotiated the tight switchbacks of Summit Trail and found myself stopping every couple hundred feet for a photo op. As I descended more, the photo ops became more frequent. Then I reached the Crooked River and was too distracted to even ride my bike. I literally just walked with my camera for a bit. The scenery was that good.

The River Trail meanders between the towering crags of Smith Rock and the Crooked River, offering incredible views.

The River Trail meanders between the towering crags of Smith Rock and the Crooked River, offering incredible views (click to enlarge).

If you’re a rock climber, you probably already know about Smith Rock, with its ancient volcanic deposits that became a world famous climbing destination in the 1980s. But considering I’ve never donned a climbing harness, Smith Rock was a new discovery. I came around a rise and the hallmark view revealed itself, towering red and beige crags perched adjacent the glorious, gently rolling Crooked River. I felt like I had just descended into a miniature version of Zion National Park. Except in this park, I could ride my mountain bike on singletrack sandwiched between a river and towering high cliffs — and not get a ticket.

For those who don bike riding Lycra, Smith Rock State Park is a gem. With a fraction of the crowds of other world-famous climbing areas, and an abundance of multi-use trails both in and outside park boundaries, the area can play host to some of the best climbing in the world one day and some of the best mountain biking Oregon has to offer another. And once you’re above the occasionally busy trails along the river, you’ll hardly see another person. In fact, outside of State Park property, I saw no one.

Inevitably, the skies opened up. Thankfully I was in the perfect location, as the River Trail runs at the foot of numerous crags featuring overhanging rain shelters. I sat and refueled while the rain fell, wondering how muddy the trails might be during my return leg.

Thanks to crags like these, Smith Rock State Park is a world famous climbing destination.

Thanks to crags like these, Smith Rock State Park is a world famous climbing destination (click to enlarge).

After 15 minutes the rain let up and I pushed onward along the river, watching climbers scale the volcanic rock that looked as if they were purpose built for the sport. Passing the bridge toward the main parking lot, I continued on Wolf Tree Trail, which eventually turned into a short but steep hike-a-bike up to Burma Road.

Ascending nearly 1,000 feet in a mile, Burma Road hurts. But the views at the top are worth suffering for.

Ascending nearly 1,000 feet in a mile, Burma Road hurts. But the views at the top are worth the suffering (click to enlarge).

Prominently cut into the side of a giant mountain with an intimidating, steep gradient, Burma Road immediately catches your attention. If you’re a mountain biker, and especially a singlespeed rider, just looking at Burma is painful. Climbing it confirmed those trepidations, but the stunning views of Smith Rock helped wash the pain away. The entire park was revealed before my eyes with an array of green, brown, beige and red.

Once back to the Summit Trail and Burma Road overlook, I continued climbing the way I descended on Gray Butte. As I climbed higher, the ground became softer and damper, but just barely dry enough that mud didn’t stick to my bike. After a couple moderately rocky and steep switchbacks, I reached the saddle where the southern part of Ridge Rider Cole Loop rewarded my climbing with an extended singletrack descent.

Halfway down, a hawk shot across the trail just five feet above my head. In a moment of pure Zen and enjoyment, I let out a whoop. A moment later the hawk responded with a piercing screech that echoed through the valley. For a moment, we were in synch, sharing a connection with our environment. The hawk piloting itself through actual flight and me piloting myself through what felt like flight.

Over millions of years, the Crooked River has eroded and exposed the magnificent landscape in Smith Rock State Park.

Over millions of years, the Crooked River has eroded and exposed the magnificent landscape in Smith Rock State Park (click to enlarge).

Back at my starting point, I triumphantly pumped my fist in the air to honor an incredible day on the bike featuring first-class, high-desert backcountry trails and stunning vistas of massive rock that forced you to stop and acknowledge the amazing power of nature and geology. It’s a day I wont soon forget.

Check out this summer’s 7 Bikes for 7 Wonders scavenger hunt. We’re hiding seven custom-made bikes around Oregon for someone to find and ride. For full details and rules, please visit traveloregon.com/7bikes7wonders. To learn more about the state and all it has to offer, check out TravelOregon.com.

Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)

About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.


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  • Shidan Hemmat says:

    That bike! Perfect ride for a perfect trip; lucky man you are.

  • Tom says:

    Great article. I hope it goes unnoticed. Smith Rock is so close to Bend, but there is almost NEVER anybody there.

    If real mud ever catches you, watch out. The stuff is legendary.

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