Smith Rock State Park Expanding to Include the Lower Gorge

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Tim Garland climbs the columnar basalt cracks of Lethal Dose (5.11a R) in Smith Rock’s Lower Gorge.Sierra Schneider

Encompassing 651 acres, Smith Rock State Park is no small climbing area, and an unfolding land acquisition is about to expand the park by another 38 acres. This acquisition encompasses both sides of the Lower Gorge, a stretch of land surrounding the Crooked River adjacent to the eastern side of the park.

Smith Rock is known as the birthplace of sport climbing within the United States. It was here that Alan Watts pioneered the rap-down bolting techniques that have come to dominate the world of outdoor rock climbing. In the Lower Gorge, though, only about 10 percent of the 300+ climbs are bolted. Instead, the vast majority are columnar basalt cracks that take gear. “The jam cracks set the Lower Gorge apart from the welded tuff sport climbs of the rest of the park,” says Matt Davey, the park manager for Smith Rock. Ian Caldwell, a local climber who was involved in the land acquisition, agrees that the Lower Gorge brings something different to Smith Rock. “It provides variety,” he said, “It’s a different style of climbing and it just works your body differently too.”

That’s not all that gives the Lower Gorge a different feel from the rest of the park. Although there is some easy climbing (the climbs here range from 5.7 to 5.13c), the best routes start in the 5.10 range and getting there is not simple. Accessing either the west or east side requires a different approach, both of which are a bit of a trek. Reaching the base of the walls on the west side involves a class 3 scramble. These factors keep the crowds at bay, making the Lower Gorge a great place for climbers looking for more solitude than they are likely to find elsewhere in Smith Rock. There are other draws to the Lower Gorge as well. It is shaded in the summer, offering a cooler place to climb when everywhere else is hot, and it’s not subject to wildlife closures like the nearby trad area Trout Creek.

A view of the Lower Gorge walls.Ian Caldwell

Despite being privately owned by the McFarlane family for as long as anyone can remember, climbers have been frequenting the Lower Gorge since the early 1970s. The McFarlanes, who bought the land to farm sheep, have never been bothered by the climbers, hikers, and kayakers who cross their land. This has held true for three generations. When the grandchildren of the original owners decided it was time to sell, “They all wanted it to go to the State Park,” said Caldwell. The landowners contacted Oregon State Parks to talk about the acquisition, not the other way around.

The parcel of land that encompasses the Lower Gorge was first identified as a property of interest in the 1990 Smith Rock Master Plan. It may be unsurprising, then, that when the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission was asked to vote on this land acquisition on June 12, it was passed unanimously. “This new acquisition will keep the area protected for the enjoyment of current and future park visitors, and protect its outstanding natural and cultural resources,” said Davey. It should also be noted that this land acquisition will ensure access to the Upper Gorge, a swath of BLM land with hard basalt sport climbs that can’t be reached any other way.

The acquisition is ongoing and as of publication the date of final sale remains unknown. However, the excitement that those involved feel around the expansion is obvious. Not much will change in terms of the infrastructure in the Lower Gorge but, “This ensures that climbers can continue to use it,” said Caldwell.