Fall of 2015 was packed chalk full of life. Both my daughters would finally be at the same elementary school (Kindergarten and 4th grade), both in soccer with different programs/schedules, wife was training for and running her first marathon, and we were gutting our domestic routine with a kitchen remodel. All great things but not leaving much room for getting outdoors to enjoy one of the prime seasons of the year in the PNW.
I was hugely inspired by Christi’s first marathon, the Tunnel Light, on Snoqualmie Pass, WA. So I decided to ramp up my trail running miles and find an organized marathon or 50k before the snow fell. Little did I know, these events usually sell out months in advance. Rookie mistake. It looked like I’d be seeking another self supported long route. The question was what was our objective to be?
We set our sites our Three Finger Jack, just north of Santiam Pass. This craggy Cascade peak has a cool 24 mi loop path around it. I had run out and back Coni the PCT the year before so was familiar with a portion of the route. As the date came near, it became obvious that snow and weather would be a concern. So we shifted our sites further east to the Smith Rock.
Smith Rock is Mecca for rock climbers the world over. Its brilliant walls jet up from the Crooked River just outside of Terrebonne, OR some 700 dramatic feet. Its a great place for winter adventures given its location 30 mi east of the Cascades. I’d been to Smith Rock several times to sport climb and hike yet I’d never made it out of the designated State Park zone. While thats an amazing area, its the tip of the iceberg as compared to what lies further east of the park. Turns out there are are a ton of trail options open to hikers, runners and mountain bikes.
With beta from GoBeyondRacing’s May event and local knowledge from a couple friends, we charted a course that started at Skull Hollow Campground and Trailhead. This trailhead is about 12 miles east of the state park area. Given that water can be hard to find in this desert landscape, we planned to run west to water at the state park, reload, and run back to the trailhead.
The posse included John, Scott, Patrick and me. John and I met on the sidelines of the soccer pitch as our daughters have played on several youth sports teams together over the past couple years. We found ourselves connecting more and more to sneak in trail runs on the Wildwood Trail in recent months. Scott and I met when he was a ski racer in high school. Coaching for another high school, I got to know him well. We have been friends for the last 15 years sharing many fun adventures in the last couple years. I met Patrick at the trailhead the day of our Smith Rock Run. Super friendly and capable trail runner with lots of experience in the Smith Rock area.
John and I drove over from Portland on a Friday afternoon and planned to stay with my in-laws outside of Sisters, OR. My oldest daughter joined us so she could get some special time with Grandma while we ran. We stayed the night with my in-laws as we prepped for the 4 am alarm clock. John and I sure appreciated the warm meal and cozy bed before the long day on the trail.
Early the next morning, we loaded up on hot coffee and food before rallying to the trailhead, 30 minutes away. Temps were in the low 30’s. After some quick intros and some route planning, we got underway with a sky full of stars.
The first goal was Gray Butte. This involved a steady climb of 1,300’ to the top of this peak, east of Smith Rock. While I don’t love antennae, I find they usually come with incredible views. That was definitely the case here. We topped out just after sunrise and enjoyed 360 degree views and stiff wind.
From there, we ran east along a series of peaks that connected us with the state park area of Smith Rock. It became evident that Patrick was far stronger than the rest of us, but I did my best to keep up. John and Scott were a little wiser in finding a pace better suited the rest of us mortals. The burly uphills were complimented by some amazing down hill scrambles amongst the scrub brush and loos rocks.
We took a small break at Eagle’s Roost, overlooking Smith Rock State Park. Such an amazing view of this rock climbing mecca, the Crooked River and Cascade Mountains from this perch.
Descending from the Roost was dicey. Very steep, loose and super fun. From there, we ran down Burma Road and hooked into the Wild Tree Trail that connects with the bridge crossing the river and leads to the state park parking lots. At this point, we had covered about 13 mi and 3,200’ of climbing. We had hoped to find water here by the bridge, but the fountains had been turned off for winter. So we hiked up to the state park bathrooms and refill in the sinks. This appears to be a reliable source through the winter.
From there, we ran up Misery Ridge. 700’ straight up in about 3/4 mi. Patrick ran the whole thing. The rest of us included variable amounts of walking to achieve the summit. From here we enjoyed some views and took stock of how far we’d come that morning as we eyed Gray Butte to the east.
We then scurried around the top of the state park and made our way around Monkey Face before descending back to the river level on the Misery Ridge Trail. At the bottom, we took a right on the Mesa Verde Trail and ultimately the River Trail. We stayed right at the River Trail which turns into the Summit Trail that wraps around the state park on the north side. This took us back up to the Burma Road via a series of switchbacks. At this point, John and I said goodbyes to Scott and Patrick. We had some time pressure to get John back for a party that night in Portland. Always balancing priorities, we pushed a little harder while Scott and Patrick enjoyed a mellower pace.
At the Summit Trail/Burma Road junction, we took a left and connected with the Gray Butte Trail that gently weaves back to toward Skull Hollow with minimal elevation change. This is a shared trail with mountain bikes, so be courteous and aware. This trail ultimately intersects with a closed dirt road and the Cole Loop Trail. We took a right here and gently descended along the road all the way back to the trailhead.
In total, we covered 22 mi and ascended 5,300’ of elevation in about 6 hrs. While I had set my sites on more miles, I definitely got my fill that day. Further, my eyes were opened to the massive potential around Smith Rock. I spend a lot of time in Central OR with extended friends and family so I’m excited to spend more time around Smith Rock in the years to come.
Feeling worked and satiated, we gathered our gear and piled into the truck. After a quick shower at Grandma’s house, we grabbed my daughter and hit the road for home. We got John back with time to spare and made it back in time for dinner with the family. It was an action packed 26 hrs door to door. So good to force in one last long adventure run before the holidays and cold winter months. It was another reminder that with curiosity and going a bit further, new worlds open up… even close to home in areas we thought we knew.