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Swarming Smith Rock 

Finding solutions to the growing number of park visitors

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If Central Oregonians were to compile a list of complaints about living here, it'd probably be a short list. But it's a safe guess what the number one problem would be: too many people are coming here.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the state parks around the area—and the park hit the hardest is Smith Rock.

In the last few years, Smith Rock has become a destination spot for thrill-seekers and outdoor adventurers from all over the world. But is this destination spot being overrun? According to a recent survey, it's getting annoyingly close.

Problems, Plans and Solutions

The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department conducted a visitor survey from the end of April to mid-June this year. The survey asked day and overnight visitors about their park-going experience. Of the people surveyed, 83 percent of Smith Rock visitors felt the park was crowded to some degree, which suggests "that crowding in the day and overnight-use areas are at 'greatly overcapacity' ...and it is generally necessary to manage for high-density recreation."

Philip Dalton lives just down the road from the park with his grandfather. The Terrebonne resident said the park is noticeably denser than when he moved to the area seven years ago.

"I never saw the cars pile up all the way down the side of the road. They had no need for an extra parking lot," Dalton said. "The last couple years, it's just boomed so much that there's no room for people to park anymore. It's amazing. They had to start parking up on the main road for awhile."

In fact, parking availability ranked lowest on the survey, with only 62 percent satisfied. It's an issue that Scott Brown, Smith Rock's park manager, has made a priority. The park set up a temporary 100-space lot over the summer to alleviate the overflow. He hopes to eventually make it permanent, but that won’t be decided until the park updates its master plan.

"We're aware of the issues, and we're working hard to come up with good solutions. That's mainly being done through this very scientific, detailed, comprehensive master planning process," Brown said.

The master plan that Brown mentioned is what guides the park’s development and management goals, similar to a business plan. Brown said the current plan is 25 years old and doesn’t account for high volume visitation numbers. He said the park was recently approved for a master plan revision, “which addresses these things like crowding and a need for additional facilities, or possibly saying, ‘How do we manage the parks in such a way as to limit visitation growth?’”

According to Brown, revising the master plan is an 18-month process. It starts with an almost ridiculous amount of data collection that covers everything from trail usage to wildlife populations to flora and fauna surveys.

"We have the dual mandate...to protect the resource but provide opportunities to experience it for recreation," he said. "So we've got to find that balance, and to do that we need more hard data."

Once the data is analyzed, the plan will receive input from three different committees, as well as the general public who can comment on drafts of the plan during three meetings throughout next year. The first public comment meeting is scheduled for mid-January.

Drawing Crowds

This master plan revision comes at a time when Smith Rock has nearly doubled its visitation numbers. Visitor counts recorded by the park show a large surge in visitors within the last three years. Starting in 2002, the park averaged 440,000 daytime visitors each year, according to stats provided by Oregon State Parks. Then in 2012, the park's attendance for the year jumped to about 545,000. This spike repeated the next two years, topping out at about 746,000 last year. A handful of other Central Oregon parks have also seen increases, though none have jumped as high as Smith Rock.

A big contributor to that rise is the general growth in Central Oregon. David Potter is the owner and lead guide of Smith Rock Climbing Guides. Like many locals, he's taken note of the huge influx of people moving to the area.

"Central Oregon's getting to be a lot more popular, getting a lot more publicity, more people are moving here, and people want to get out on the weekends," Potter said. "It's definitely world famous climbing. We have people traveling from overseas, and it's one of the places they've got to hit."

The survey also revealed that a majority of Smith Rock's visitors are from out of town, with almost 60 percent driving 250 miles or more to get to the park. Although Smith Rock has been a popular destination since the park opened in 1960, much of its recent popularity/notoriety is thanks to the Seven Wonders of Oregon ad campaign. Independently spearheaded by Travel Oregon, the campaign highlighted seven unique environments in Oregon—Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, the Columbia River Gorge, Painted Hills, the Wallowas, the Oregon Coast and Smith Rock—with television and movie ads that played around the world in 2014 and 2015.

"I have to say, they did an excellent job," Brown said. "It did bring in a lot of people and increased visitation a significant amount." Brown said that has also led to more professional filming and photography at the park—including several scenes from the popular 2014 film "Wild"—which feed into Smith Rock's iconic status.

Taking the Edge Off

As a resident, Dalton knew Smith Rock would become crowded sooner or later. "Every great secret gets out. It's just about expanding with it: putting in the right parking and managing it how it needs to be managed."

To that end, the park staff and locals are always looking for ways to immediately improve and alleviate the park. Besides the temporary parking lot, Brown listed a handful of steps the park staff has taken to accommodate the influx, including improving ease of access to the trails and main entrance, doubling the number of volunteer hours, adding a new seasonal ranger position and streamlining payment and permit options.

"There's been a number of things we got to spiff up and improve the park," he said. "A lot of the way we do things in general, as far as our day-to-day duties, have changed to accommodate."

It seems to be working: the park scored an impressive 97 percent in overall satisfaction on the survey. Dalton agreed, awarding the staff an "A+" for their efforts. "I know they've improved the walkway. It used to be really bad, loose gravel and a killer to walk up," he said. "They keep everything up great, and when it needs to be fixed they fix it."

Potter also complimented the park staff's responsiveness and involvement. As a frequent visitor, he also tries to help out. "We try to set up a lot of new routes if we can, do a lot of route development to try to thin out the crowds by going to different areas of the park," he said. He, along with 200 other people, was also part of this year's Spring Thing, an annual cleaning event hosted by the Smith Rock Group.

As park visitation begins to slow down for the season, Brown said he's ready for even more people to visit Smith Rock next year. "I think it's truly unique in the Northwest. There's nothing like it as far as the dramatic geology, the number of sport climbing routes, the easily watchable wildlife," he said.

And even though the park's unique features will continue to draw larger crowds of visitors, Dalton said he can handle these minor inconveniences. At the end of the day, he might even be responsible for some of them. "I'd love to keep this place a secret," he said. "But at the same time I come from Portland, and as soon as I get over there the first thing I brag about is this place."

Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify the timelines and procedures associated with the master plan.

Take a listen to our SourceCast interview with Mike Volk.

Mike Volk has been Smith Rock's biggest fan since 1971. He talks about this international rock climbing and hiking destination—from an historical perspective—mixed with a bit of legend and lore, with the Source Weekly's Brian Jennings.

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