High cliffs launch skyward from the banks of the Crooked River at Smith Rock State Park. They’ve been carved by the rushing water below, sculpted over the millennia into the modern cliffs that climbers love. For the hiker, there is one trail that beckons upward, one path that ascends to the ridge high above. It is steep, full of switchbacks, but never short on grand views. Presumably, its name derives from the difficulty of the terrain, but the view from the top justifies every bit of exertion required in hiking Misery Ridge.
It’s late in the day as we walk towards the rim of the gorge. The aroma of juniper and sagebrush is strong on the wind, an olfactory indicator of a fine evening in a good land. We are in the shadows of Smith Rock here on the eastern half of the Crooked River’s horseshoe that wraps around the tuff. Daylight is dwindling, and we have an ascent to make. Sunset from Misery Ridge is our goal, but before we can gain the necessary elevation we must first drop down to the river for a crossing.
The honks of Canada geese bounce off the rock faces as usual. Cliff swallows cackle overhead just above the riverbank, mocking our bipedal efforts while they effortlessly dive, turn, and climb in the open air. We make our switchbacks and regain our initial descent as golden light bathes the towers and cliffs before us. I doubt that the scenery of this landscape could ever become repetitive or commonplace. It’s too dramatic and multifaceted. Changing hours, days, and seasons continuously paint it anew. To the watchful eye, the view is never the same.
We round a high turn and find ourselves on top. It was cool in the shade as we stepped ever upwards, but now we walk into the setting sunlight. The warmth of waning day is countered by the cool breeze that sweeps across the ridge, but there are nooks in the rocks where calmer air can be found. We seek such a refuge, sit, and watch the light change.
It is a remarkable view from Misery Ridge. Before us sits a vast lava plain covered with sagebrush, juniper, and ponderosa pine. Over 40 miles to the south, we see Newberry Volcano: the source of the lava that flowed over this land long ago. Below us, the Crooked River winds around the base of rocks on which we stand — rocks left by the supervolcano that shaped this land long before Newberry. To the west, the Cascades line up in front of the western sky as it shifts from one hue to another. Clouds hide some of the lower peaks, but we can see Bachelor, Broken Top, the Three Sisters, Jefferson, and, from the right spot, Hood. These high volcanic peaks further reinforce the fact that this is not a static landscape. The geography we behold from our perch now is fleeting. It’s the product of tectonics, erosion, and natural selection. It exists in glory now, but only now. What we are witnessing is the magnificence of the present, just one scene in a long line of wondrous vistas that have been displayed here since time immemorial. We are blessed and cursed: blessed to see the beauty now, but cursed to know only this beauty. If we could reach back through time, we could see the beginnings of this land. If we could stretch into the future, we might enjoy the splendor for which it is bound.
Thankfully, though we’re bound to the present, it is easy to revel in the wonder on display tonight.
The sun sets. Everything is in shade now, but the breeze does not relent. With happy hearts we descend Misery Ridge. The only misery is in departing.