Heights scare me. Especially vertical ones. So you won’t ever find me doing rock climbing, even despite the fact that we hit the trail at one of the world’s favorite rock climbing meccas, Smith Rock State Park located in Central Oregon‘s high desert.

Amid a cluster of laid-back banter from rock climbers arriving early to start their ascents before the sun got too hot, Brad and I, sans dogs for this trip, quickly buckled in our packs and set off down the trail, determined to explore one of Oregon’s top gems.

The trail headed easily enough down an easy grade from the parking lot on the mesa. We descended into the Crooked River riverbed, gaping at the towering rocks above us. It was early yet, but climbers were already speckled across the rock faces. We crossed the bridge spanning the river, and opted for the ‘Misery Ridge / Monkey Face’ trail which, ominously pointed upwards with a “most difficult” indicator. They weren’t kidding! We immediately started climbing up, passing the first group of climbers. I muttered, “No, thank you” with a smile and one of them smiled back at me. I think he sensed my nervousness despite all the ropes holding him safe to the wall. “You have the hard work, you know,” he said, pointing upwards the trail we were following. “I don’t think so!” I exclaimed. “I can’t even imagine how much strength it takes to do what you are doing!” We did pause to watch the other climbers in the group, some still on the ground providing belay for the ropes.

Just looking at them made my hands sweaty, and my neck started cramping from being craned upwards. I looked away, down the slope, and happened to spot some movement, then a bird literally flew just a few inches from my foot. I froze. It was a canyon wren, a small bird with an incredible cascading warble and one of my favorites. It hovered, then ducked into a crevasse right in the trail, and seconds later, I heard peeps coming from chicks as its parent fed them. So cool! I quietly reached for my camera, and was able to snap a photo when it emerged shortly thereafter and took off.

We kept climbing, but it was such a gorgeous day and the scenery was so breath taking that I hardly noticed the steepness of the trail as it jigged and jagged its way. The last section was pretty tough, but smiles were all around with all the folks who also opted to hike this path. Who couldn’t smile at this amazing panorama unfolding below us?

The final push to the top cut through a notch in the rock, and we took a few minutes to catch our breath. Nearby, some German hikers celebrated their summit by taking some photos near a rock ledge with a precipitous drop off.

It was totally quiet up on top, with the exception of some bird song. “What’s that red bird?” Brad wondered. He takes a mild interest in what I call an obsession. It was a Western tanager, and the brightly colored red and yellow bird, to prove its point, flew past us and into a nearby tree.

Rest break over, we continued on the ridge trail, and explored some of the side trails, some of which went out to some other outcroppings. Brad mountain-goat jumped up to one that left me absolutely stock still in fright… did I mention that I am terrified of heights? I don’t think I breathed as I watched him rock-hopping, and finally exhaled when he was back near the main trail.

Looking out from our aerie, the vista was sweeping. Down below, the green ribbon of the Crooked River snaked its way around the rock base, with the farther horizon dotted with verdant pastures and grassland, and in the distance, multiple snowcapped peaks revealed the spiny backbone of the Cascade Mountains. The sun shone warmly, and we took in the view.

Finally, it was time to head down. And down. And down… oy my aching knees. I put it into low gear and we wound our way down the tightly-packed switchbacks, passing several people who didn’t realize the altitude that they scaled and were even more frightened than I with the towering heights we had reached on the summit.

Rounding a corner, we came face to face… with Monkey Face. Famed climbing highlight of the park, a completely vertical tower topped off with a remarkable likeness of an ape’s countenance greeted us. Apparently, the monkey was hungry, because there were a whole lot of people dangling in or sitting inside its mouth! I watched in absolute rapt enchantment as these space-defying climbers grasped their way up the rock. Unbelievable.

However, it was time for me to turn my attention back to the trail, and we finally touched down to the sandy path bordering the river just in time to see a deer crossing the water towards us. The heat of the day was starting to build, so we quickened our pace to finish up the 4.4 mile hike. As we neared the parking lot, I was flabbergasted at the numbers of climbers… literally hundreds! There were some sections of the park that had clusters of people wedged in amazingly tight corners and precipices. Even so, there were plenty of blank walls that were unattended.

The biggest thing that I truly noticed were the number of smiles that day. Who couldn’t smile at all of this beauty? Who couldn’t smile that they conquered Monkey Face? Who couldn’t smile at summiting the top of Smith Rock and taking in such expansive views of the entire central part of the state?

Brad and I ambled back to the car, turning back occasionally to take yet another look at the rocky landscape before we left. And when we drove out of the park, we were smiling too.

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