Central Oregon's majestic Smith Rock State Park is considered to be one of Oregon's "Seven Wonders" by Travel Oregon, the state agency that promotes tourism. It is also considered to be one of the world's premiere rock climbing destinations and the number of visitors to the park has grown to approximately 900,000 per year. Most who come are fair weather users, but winter, with cooler temperatures, is a great time to enjoy the 650-acre park located right in our backyard.
Mike Volk, considered by many as an icon of the mountaineering and outdoor community, first encountered Smith Rock 45 years ago in 1971, while a student at the University of Oregon. Today, he and his wife Marcia live across the street from the world-famous rock climbing destination on a 10-acre parcel directly across from the rim.
Nowadays, the park is used not only by climbers, but also by hikers, slack line enthusiasts, runners, mountain bikers, and horse lovers. There are numerous trail options – some easy, others much more challenging. No matter which trail one chooses, the spectacular scenery viewed during a brisk winter hike in the park is hard to beat.
Volk has watched the park develop from little exposure to heavy use. When Smith Rock State Park first hit the international stage as a climbing destination, the only area for climbers to camp was in his back yard. He says it was interesting to hear all the various foreign languages. This part of Oregon had become famous worldwide. Except for a few years spent away, Volk has lived most of his adult life at Smith Rock. To many, he has become the park's number one steward and unofficial spokesperson. Few, if any, know more about the area than Volk.
There are two versions of the story of how the park came to be known as Smith Rock. Version one recounts a battle in 1863 between U.S. Army troops and Northern Paiutes. The soldiers were chasing a band of Paiutes led by Chief Paulina, who had raided the Warm Springs tribe and stolen nearly 200 horses. During the ensuing battle at what is now Smith Rock, Private Voke Smith volunteered to search for the Paiutes to be sure they weren't riding into an ambush. After climbing the steep west side area, Smith somehow lost his footing and fell to his death. The east side of the climb is a sheer 500 ft. cliff. How he lost his footing is speculation. No one will ever know for certain. The second version is somewhat less exciting: that the area is named after former Linn County Sheriff and state legislator Captain John Smith, who worked for the Warm Springs Indian Agency and explored much of the Crooked River Canyon.
Indeed, there is much fact and fiction, lore and legend surrounding Smith Rock State Park, but one thing is certain: today, it is one of the most popular recreational destinations in Oregon. For hikers there are a dozen trails ranging from easy to difficult. Early morning is always an excellent time to venture into the park as the sunrise provides varied shadows and colors no matter what the season, particularly as one walks the easy trails following the Crooked River as it winds its way through the canyons.
Although he has spent most of his adult life hiking, climbing, photographing, and promoting Smith Rock, Mike Volk is humble about the praise that is his due. He talks of the future and what the park will be like for generations to come. He praises the State Parks Department and the volunteer groups working to keep the park in top condition. He and his wife maintain smithrock.com, a website that contains rich and colorful information about the park that is helpful to all recreational users from beginners to experts.