Monday, May 11, 2015

Smith Rock / Gray Butte Trail (OR)

Day two of Spring Barbie Camp brought sunny skies and cold morning temps, in the high 20s. Neither Jason Snook nor I had brought stuff for breakfast, so we ended up driving into Sisters for some much needed food and coffee – I must say, I wasn’t too heartbroken about this. I can only guess that I wasn’t the best company at the diner, since I was still in a haze from the festivities the night before. I ended up devouring an excessive amount of biscuits & gravy and topping it off with 2 eggs and a few sausage links. With my belly still expanding from the biscuits, we headed back to camp to meet up with the others and get ready for our ride at Smith Rock, which I’d never done before.

We quickly broke camp and said our goodbyes to the folks who were either heading back home or doing a different ride than us. The drive from Sisters to the Skull Hollow trailhead took about 45 minutes to an hour, traveling through Redmond and Terrebonne before the jagged peaks of Smith Rock came into view. Driving over the Crooked River brought back memories of my last time through the park, only then it was in my kayak, during the rare opportunity when they are releasing heavy flows from the dam. It’s actually been 5 years since the last significant release (trip report, here).

Pulling into the Skull Hollow Campground we found ourselves in the minority to the many horse trailers that were parked there. Although I’m in favor of shared trail use and believe that no form of recreation is more important than another, I was really hoping that we wouldn’t be dealing with too much horse traffic (or shit) on the trail. Even though the temps were supposed to be relatively cool, Emily and I drove around the lot for a bit, trying to find a place with shade for the dog. We eventually found a nice little nook between some trees that would provide adequate coverage, regardless of where the sun was at in the sky. We then unloaded our bikes, got geared up and met the others at the start of the trail, ready for the climb that would have us ascending around 700’ in 2 ½ miles.

We started the ride on the Cole Loop Trail (#854), heading in a northerly direction toward Gray Butte and paralleling Skull Hollow Rd (FS 7510). The climb made its ascent at a very manageable grade and through an open pine forest setting with good sight lines – All I could think about along the way was how fun of a descent it was going to be on the way back! We did have to pass through a few fence gates, which we needed to make sure were properly latched, before continuing on. Soon, the trail swooped around to our left and up another draw, where it eventually transitioned onto the Gray Butte Trail (#852), as it headed toward Smith Rock. This section of the trail led us up Sherwood Canyon, traveling high up on its rim and providing expansive views of the Cascades since the hillside covering was mainly dry grass, with sparse trees and shrubs dotting its landscape. Unfortunately, the cloud layer had fallen too low to see the tops of the main volcanic peaks.

Randy, somewhere along Gray Butte Trail

Emily takes in the views to the west

Long sightlines along the ridge

Near the boundary of Smith Rock State Park, the trail crossed over Burma Rd, where it started a steep descent down a series of switchbacks and traverses. This was also the point where we discovered that the Spring Sting adventure race was going on. Unfortunately for us, the participants happened to be climbing up the trail at the same time we were trying to get down. We did have the option of following the same route as the racers by descending Burma Rd, but instead, we decided to continue with our original plan and just yield to the uphill traffic as we made our way down the hill. We ended up crossing paths with lots of race participants, which broke up what would have been a pretty sweet descent. However, even if the race wasn’t going on, we still would have needed to control our speed and be on our best behavior, since there was also plenty of day hikers, who were also using this popular stretch of trail.

Jason enters the park

The top of Burma Rd was a popular spot on this day

Arthur and Roland lead the charge on the descent

More expansive views

Jason, between switchbacks.

Sarah rides past a nice viewpoint along the way

Arthur drops into the last pitch down to the river

Roland, givin' chase.

Sarah gets her first glimpse of Monkey Face

All too soon, the trail had dropped all the way down to the Crooked River, where it followed along its bank and past the many climbing routes engraved into the cliff walls to our left. We also passed by the famous landmark Monkey Face, a large rock spire with a formation on top that looks eerily like the head of a primate. This is probably the most popular trail in the park, so we kept a slow pace and gave friendly greetings to those we passed by. After passing by a footbridge over the Crooked, we followed the path around a large bend in the river for about a mile, where we reached a spur trail that led up to Burma Rd, at a very steep grade.

Emily, lovin' the ride!

Sarah nears the river 

Jason plays catch up after taking some photos

More great views of Monkey Face

Emily starts the river path

In the heart of Smith Rock State Park

Taking it easy during this stretch 

Jason, leaving the heavily populated section

We relaxed for a bit and had a snack before starting what would end up being a pretty brutal ascent, which included the climb on Burma Rd. About the only redeeming quality of the climb was the panorama, which once you were up high enough, you could see the entirety of the park with the Cascade as the backdrop. I can’t even imagine climbing up Burma in the middle of summertime, since it has absolutely no shade and ascends ~1,000’ in one mile. I’ve always considered myself a pretty slow climber, but after finding myself alone with no one from our crew in sight, I was feeling pretty defeated.

Rounding a corner during the ultra steep ascent out of the canyon

One of the more rideable parts of this section 

The start of the slog up Burma Rd.

Plenty of climbing routes on those walls

The view from Burma Rd.

Still a ways to go, but a light at the end of the tunnel...

I finally made it to the top of the road after what felt like an eternity and found the rest of the group patiently waiting for me. We were now back at the intersection where we had run into all the adventure racers. Without delay, we headed back on the stick of the lollipop, traveling northeast on the hillside above Sherwood Canyon. We regrouped one last time before the start of the descent back to the car, which may not have been necessary since the dust being kicked up by our tires encouraged a bit of spacing between us. In fact, at one point I pulled over and waited a few minutes before continuing on, just to let the dust settle. As I had assumed during the climb up the same trail, it was a sweet descent -- With long sight lines and no uphill traffic, it was time to open her up!

Heading back

Lost in a field of sage

Sarah, takin' in the descent

Nice sightlines here as well! 

Getting back to the car happened way too soon, and I was a bit surprised how short the downhill felt. With some remaining energy (at least for more descending), I convinced Emily to shuttle me to the top of Cline Butte so that I could get in a little more riding, explaining to her that it could double as exercise for our dog Grace. I’m not sure she completely bought my argument, but nonetheless, she happily agreed to give me a ride to the top. If you’re curious how that ride went, my ride report for Cline Butte can be found here.

The Gray Butte / Smith Rock ride that we did was fantastic! It’s not that the riding terrain was all that memorable, but it was good enough and the views of the surrounding landscape more than made up for it. It was also cool to experience Smith Rock from my bike saddle, since I had already done so from my kayak and with my hiking boots. Each method has provided its own unique experience and I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed any one over the other. I would actually compare this ride experience to road biking the Old McKenzie Highway and Crater Lake, or mountain biking Mount Saint Helens; although, I would say it’s not nearly as good as the last example – that one is an ultra-classic!

In the end, Smith Rock State Park is a very popular recreational area, so expect to have a shared use experience and just make the best of it – there’s a reason it’s so popular, it’s truly an amazing place to experience. If you decide to head there when the weather isn’t as nice (to avoid the crowds), make sure you don’t go if the trails are too wet, as I hear the mud will stop you dead in your tracks. Apparently, they don’t call it “Grey Butte Gumbo” for nothing…

The tracks from our ride:

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