Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon features scenic rock formations and volcanic cliff walls that provide sweeping views of the Crooked River and canyon floor below. It’s also a premier rock climbing destination, with over 1,500 bolted routes for climbers to maneuver. According to park officials, Smith Rock’s popularity has soared in the past decade, with nearly a million people visiting it in 2021. At roughly 700 acres, Smith Rock also provides critical habitat for golden eagles, prairie falcons and other raptors, prompting seasonal climbing closures and restrictions to limit hiking on trails near nesting sites.
Last week, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department unveiled a new draft “Master Plan” for Smith Rock and is accepting public comments on it until May 15. The document is intended to serve as a roadmap to guide management and planning priorities at the park for the next 20 years, from upgrading bathroom facilities to instituting a reservation system for parking to relieve congestion. Other proposals include expanding trail access to people who use wheelchairs or have limited mobility and creating a set of standards for rock climbing behavior and etiquette at the park. Matt Davey, Park Manager at Smith Rock State Park, and Max Tepfer, the president of the High Desert Climbers Alliance and a professional rock climbing guide based in Bend, join us to discuss the new plan.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Geoff Norcross. Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon is an amazing place, spires of volcanic rock jutting into the sky carved into majestic formations by the Crooked River. It’s one of Oregon’s most beloved hiking and climbing destinations, so well loved in fact that visitation has tripled in the last 30 years. Park managers there say there are times when there are just too many visitors for the park infrastructure to keep up. Earlier this month, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department released a draft master plan that will guide development at Smith Rock for the next two decades. Here to talk about that is park manager Matt Davey. Matt, welcome to the show.
Matt Davey: Hi Geoff, pleasure to be here.
Norcross: And Max Tepfer, he’s the president of the High Desert Climbers Alliance. Max, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Max Tepfer: Thanks.
Norcross: So Matt Davey, you’re first. When things do get super crowded at Smith Rock, what’s it like there?
Davey: It can feel very congested. The first experience people get when it’s really crowded is they just can’t find a parking spot. We see a lot of vehicles circling through the available parking areas, sometimes for up to an hour looking for that parking spot to open up. And if you get lucky you find a parking spot, then it’s descending into the canyon. The way that the flow into the park is tends to be resembling a conga line at times.
Norcross: Has managing the surge in visitation influenced some of the long term planning considerations that we’re going to get into. Is that a big factor?
Davey: Yeah, that’s the biggest factor, it’s really been that growth since the last Master Plan, which was just a little over 30 years ago, we haven’t had a lot of facility development to address that exponential growth that we’ve really seen in just the last 10-plus years.
Norcross: The State Parks Department is inviting public input on the new draft Master Plan. When it was released, the agency held a couple of workshops to go over the plan and some of its proposals. What did you hear from the people who attended, and what stood out to you in terms of their concerns?
Davey: The main themes coming out of that were the parking, the congestion that was caused by the parking, and some of the safety issues resulting from that too. The visitation overcrowding rose high on the list too, the experience after you got out of the car. And then some of the trail degradation, widening and off-trail behavior that was coming from that too. We also had a lot of feedback regarding a desire for improved education experience opportunities, a way to really learn about the park too. Those were the main themes coming out, as well as from our repeat visitors that come all the time, the desire to keep a lot of what makes the park special intact. Trying not to change it too much was a big thing too.
Norcross: We skimmed through some of the public comments that you’ve gotten already. Richard McGill from Bend wrote “As a climber who has spent a ton of time at the various crags, banning dogs is long overdue. The park is too crowded to justify them and they just cause problems.”
Kevin Byrne from Terrebonne wrote “I live one mile away from Smith Rock. I like the upgrades, except for increasing the capacity of visitors. It needs to be limited. The amount of traffic from visitors is destroying the wildlife habitats, and making it unlivable in the area because of the traffic.”
And Matt, it sounds like comments like those about the capacity of people, that seems to be the overwhelming response you’re getting?
Davey: Yeah, it’s the overwhelming response. And so we’re hoping that this plan is gonna help address some of that by changing the flow of visitors to the park, redirecting some, and offering new experiences where people aren’t quite funneled down and, and, and congested into some of those areas where it is causing some of the resource damage, and then offering some facility improvements that will help also reduce the amount of damage from the people coming into the park.
Norcross: Let’s talk about some specific proposals in the master plan. Can you point to one thing that the plan proposes to do something about this overcrowding problem?
Davey: One of the first experiences when people arrive at a park is they need to use the bathroom after a long drive getting there. One of the big things we want to do is just provide more restroom opportunities so you’re not gonna be standing in a line. It’s offering those facility improvements, as well a consolidated parking lot that will be safer. Currently with parking, there’s a lot of head-in and parallel parking right along a county road, which forces visitors to walk out into the roadway, back out into the roadway. And we share this county road with a lot of park neighbors too. So as people are stopped in the middle of the road looking for a parking spot, some of these park neighbors get held up trying to just get to their residence. So by removing that parking off of the county road and putting it into a consolidated lot where you would have easier access to facilities, as well as easier access to information, so that you can figure out what you wanna do with your experience at that time, rather than just letting that experience happen to you by following the crowd.
Norcross: And one of the proposals as I understand it is to institute a reservation system for the day use parking there. How exactly would that work?
Davey: Yeah, that’s a theme that we’re seeing with a lot of overcrowded areas. We’ve seen that in the Columbia Gorge through that waterfall, historic highway section. We’ve seen it down on the south coast at Shore Acre State Park. But here with Smith Rock, hiking, climbing, it’s so weather dependent. It’s important to keep spontaneous visits to the park still accessible. So with the reservation system, we’re looking at phasing one parking lot in at a time, where people that could be traveling let’s say from Portland hours away or, or even closer, could purchase a parking spot in advance. That parking spot that would be held for them in a gated lot. That would just be the reservable lot. However, a lot of this parking at the park will continue to still just become first come first serve. It’s really just gonna offer an opportunity so that people could secure a spot before they show up.
Norcross: There are different opinions about that. John Cartecena from Portland is in favor of a parking permit system, and he wrote “please limit access aligned with currently available parking through the establishment and use of a required permit system.”
But Sydney Fair in Salem is opposed to any kind of reservation system, she writes “my family and I love the outdoors. We love driving to Smith Rock to climb for a day or for a weekend. A reservation system would make it difficult for climbers and other users to experience Smith Rock. So much of our state has become a reservation system.”
Let’s bring Max Tepfer into this conversation. He’s the president of the High Desert Climbers Alliance. Max, what is it about Smith Rock that makes it such a premier destination for rock climbers?
Tepfer: I think it’s a combination of the quality of the climbing and the climate. Smith is in the range out of the Cascades, and so whenever it’s storming in the west side, it’s quite nice at Smith. It’s some of the best rock climbing in the state and it’s all concentrated in this one spot.
Norcross: I’m sure you’ve seen the crowd problem that we talked about here. How does that affect the experience when you’re climbing?
Tepfer: As Matt said, definitely parking is an issue. On weekends, you pretty much have to show up early if you want to get in and park easily. When you’re climbing specifically, it’s not as acute as the parking lot would lead you to believe, because a lot of those people are non-climbers. And if you have an open mind or are able to adjust your plan while you’re climbing, it’s pretty easy to have a fun day of rock climbing, but you might not get to climb on the routes that you wanted to climb on that day, because there’s so many other people.
Norcross: Have you noticed a change in the kinds of climbers and their skill level or experience with climbing over the years at Smith Rock?
Tepfer: Absolutely. The sport of rock climbing has grown exponentially in the same time frame that Smith has grown in popularity. I think outdoor recreation in general has exploded. A big driver of that is the proliferation of climbing gyms throughout the country. And the way you learn to climb the climbing gym is not exactly how you want to climb outside. And the big difficulty right now is educating people from the climbing gyms on how the norms and mores are climbing outdoors.
Norcross: How often do you go rock climbing there?
Tepfer: Between work and other stuff, I’m climbing five or six days a week.
Norcross: Have you ever had to give it up? Have you ever had to turn around and go home because you just didn’t have the access, there were just too many people there?
Tepfer: Personally, no. I’m off and going quite early, before the parking fills.
Norcross: We asked listeners on Facebook, what their favorite thing about the park was. Leif Warner says “Hiking over the Misery Ridge Trail, the awesome views and rock structures, and being able to float on a pack raft for the way back thanks to that horseshoe shaped river going around it.”
Scott Douglas Cornthwaite said “Favorite thing? The time when it was little known before Instagram.” Lakshmi Kurosawa had a similar feeling, they wrote their favorite thing was “the memory of going there when it was almost deserted at times when there were just a few people there in the 1960s before it was well known, as did Diane Kress Hower who wrote “my first time there with my husband before we were married 26 years ago. I live close by now, so walks early and late in the day when the hordes of people are not around.”
Matt, I want to turn to you. To what do you attribute this huge increase in interest at Smith Rock State Park over the last 30 years?
Davey: I think it’s a combination of factors. There’s been some great tourism promotions from Central Oregon and Travel Oregon that have really put Smith Rock on a map for international destinations. But Smith Rock is also just a regional resource too. Because of the climate, we are accessible year round. Hiking here even in the wintertime, especially with our recent somewhat mild winters, can be very pleasurable too. It’s really just one of those places that people can have an experience year round here that’s great. Hiking, like Max said, to outdoor recreation is just exploding. A lot of our trailheads throughout Central Oregon are becoming a lot more overcrowded, and so it’s not a problem that’s entirely unique to Smith Rock. And Smith Rock just presents a lot of opportunities for wildlife photography, wildlife viewing, and just natural reflection in the canyon. It’s a beautiful gem.
Norcross: And the park also allows overnight camping. What is the current system for people who want to stay overnight at Smith Rock?
Davey: It’s really unique. It was affectionately called a bivouac camp, which was a low impact camp for climbers to head into the park. And we’ve maintained that feel throughout the years too. You can drive your car in, it’s a walk-in campground. It doesn’t accommodate sleeping in vehicles, RVs, trailers, or anything like that. It’s really for low impact. No fires, has a communal cooking shelter. You park and you walk in just a short ways. There’s a designated tent area where you can just pitch a tent for sleeping. And it’s a great location too to just connect with other people, other climbers in the park. It functions more like what you would see in some of our other state parks, like a hiker-biker camp but on a little bit bigger scale, with bathrooms and shower facilities too, and just quick access into the canyon. It’s really unique, and people really like it and didn’t want that changed very much.
Norcross: So it’s not gonna change under the new master plan?
Davey: The bivouac will have very modest changes. The only real development that would happen there would be putting in a site for some groups, because we do have climbing clubs, climbing camps that operate throughout the year too. So this would give them a space where they could reserve a little facility because the bivouac can fill up. So for people that don’t want to operate those climbing camps, they could reserve a group camp space. And then it would provide some covered cooking areas and a little bit of an expanded scene for them. It’s very modest.
Norcross: Max Tepfer, there’s a proposal in this plan that would create a new staff position called Climbing Ranger. How do you think this new role could best work with the climbing community at the park?
Tepfer: I think it would be fantastic. Like I was saying earlier, the one of the cruxes that the climbing community faces right now is just educating new climbers. And I kind of see this role primarily operating as a steward, a public facing person in the park in the climbing community who can help people coming from climbing gyms who don’t really know all of those things I was just talking about, educating them on the correct ways to go climbing outside.
Norcross: And more broadly, what are your hopes for the future of Smith Rock, and preserving its status as a premier destination for rock climbing as this new plan comes online?
Tepfer: From the climbing community’s perspective, our main goal is to implement a climbing management plan, which is gonna come further down the pike once the management plan is implemented. And that would enshrine climbing access officially at Smith Rock State Park. The big thing on that is how fixed anchors are managed, which is a big part of climbing.
Norcross: Matt, it seems to me one of the big challenges with this plan is balancing a lot of competing interests, including with the climbers and with the hikers, but also protecting wildlife while trying to enhance visitor access. Under this proposal of the draft plan, are you just going to have to ask the public to anticipate having less access in the interest of protecting wildlife?
Davey: At some point, you do have to just draw the line. We’re not looking at massive expansion for acreage. We’ve got a relatively small park at just shy of 700 acres right now. So there has to be a point when you do have to turn people around. And that’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality. It’s the only way to protect the entire resource.
But what we can do is offer a different experience too, like shorter stay options, more accessible hiking opportunities. I think a lot of people come to the park, and based upon our surveys, they spend upwards of four hours in the park. And I think for a lot of people that’s probably more time than they actually had intended, because they descend into the canyon and may or may not create a big loop hike up and over Misery Ridge. So what we want to do is offer some shorter stay opportunities that can also just be very enriching, and accessible too. An expanded Rim Rock trail that can bring you out to the north end of the park with views the entire way, with opportunities for shade and picnic. And then a welcome center, a visitor center where people can come in and really get a sense of what the park is, what it has to offer and, and how they can experience the park with the time that they have.
Norcross: Thank you both very much for this conversation. That’s Matt Davey, manager of Smith Rock State Park and Max Tepfer, the president of the High Desert Climbers Alliance.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.