Morning Above the Crooked River

Two giant volcanos created this landscape, though their contributions were millions of years apart. Nearly 30 million years ago, the Crooked River Caldera formed when an ancient supervolcano collapsed. Inside that vast rim (which is difficult to see today) sit outcrops dating back at least that old: welded tuffs pointing skyward in a peninsula carved by the wandering Crooked River. The river was led here by the second volcano: Newberry Volcano. Forty miles to the south, Newberry sent a basalt flow northward some 350,000 years ago, pinning the Crooked against the tuff cliffs. Now, this work of water and volcanics is an icon of Oregon’s High Desert landscape: Smith Rock.

Newberry Volcano, along with its cinder cones, disappears in the distant clouds

My morning explorations carried me across the Crooked River, over Misery Ridge, then up and around the northeast end of Smith Rock before eventually depositing me back in the riparian habitats along the riverbank. A predawn departure blessed the morning with the calls of two Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus), along with a silhouetted view of one as it flew from one juniper to another. The climb up Misery Ridge was gradually illuminated with approaching light, and by the time I reached the top the cold rocks seemed eager to greet the warm light of day. From a perch shielded from the brisk morning wind, I waited with the rocks til the first rays set the landscape aglow.

first light at Smith Rock

Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) soared overhead as I descended the ridge to briefly follow the Crooked River downstream. I paused to admire one in flight. It was a fleeting admiration: this bird does not linger long. The light on the rocks reflecting in the river was a bit more agreeable and patient, shimmering oranges in a landscape of cool dawn blues.

reflected in the Crooked River

Back in the shadows, I climbed again. The Summit Trail ascended gradually through bunchgrass, Western Junipers (Juniperus occidentalis), and patches of persistent snow. Eventually I was above the Crooked once more, this time peering down on it through clefts in the cliffs. Here in an area that receives about one foot of precipitation each year, all water merits some appreciation. Every glimpse along the trails at Smith Rock provides a new frame through which one can admire the Crooked River and its continual services to this landscape, simultaneously destroying through erosion and creating through the life it sustains.

the Crooked’s path, cut through ancient basalt from Newberry Volcano
Golden Eagle nest

Having crested the highest ridge, I rapidly desceded back to the riverbanks. Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa) towered above the wet margins, dwarfed by the rocky heights that loomed taller still. Though their builders were absent from view, the nests of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) clung precariously to the cliff faces past signs marking a seasonal closure to protect this habitat.

The final stretch of trail was a fine farewell to the Crooked River for the day. Ducks and geese floated in the water. An unidentified hawk flew overhead as clouds turned clear skies overcast. I climbed up trail out of the canyon and turned back once more to admire the scene before me: volcanic rock artfully sculpted over millennia by a most determined river. Dramatic, cataclysmic events laid the geologic foundation here at Smith Rock, but it was (and still is) the Crooked River that carved this geography into the High Desert.

This stream provides more than water in an arid land. Grandeur and wonder are two of its finest works, beautifully rendered at Smith Rock.

Smith Rock and the Crooked River
Like what you read? Give Chaney Swiney a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.