State Park draws large crowds, but offers unique Central Oregon views.

WILL DENNER/MADRAS PIONEER - The monkey face rock formation at Smith Rock State Park, as seen from the Mesa Verde trail near the Crooked River.
Sometimes, it is easy to miss certain landmarks, even when they are staring you right in the face.

Smith Rock State Park is a conspicuous landmark that sits in the shadow of U.S. Highway 97 near Terrebonne, approximately 20 miles south of Madras. On trips to Central Oregon growing up, my family would often make a brief visit to the rock formation made of basalt and tuff.

But we never made the trip up to the top. Part of that was due to an occasional time crunch, as well as my mom's fear of encountering rattlesnakes.

Even from the bottom, I was always intrigued by the landscape. As soon as this winter ended, I wanted to set aside an afternoon to finally hike the Misery Ridge trail and check out the view from the top.On a recent Wednesday, 80-degree afternoon, I made the drive from Madras to do just that.

For a week day, the park was plenty full of people, which made parking sparse. I knew the site was a popular one, but was surprised how many people were there in the middle of the week in May.

I walked down towards the Crooked River and across the bridge where a steep slope indicated the start of the Misery Ridge trail.

The 4.2 mile loop is a quick ascension to the top, and it tested me early. The combination of switchbacks, some with wooden staircases, made the uphill climb easier, but as I huffed my way there, it seemed to be a slow slog.

But the view at the top made the trip all worth it. A clear day allowed the Sisters mountains and Mount Bachelor to be seen without obstruction.

The back, downhill stretch of Misery Ridge in the direction of Crooked River indicated that the toughest stretch was over.

At the bottom, arrows pointed left and right to continue to loop on the Mesa Verde trail. Uncertain of where to go, I asked a passerby which route was better, and he said to go left, because "Monkey Face" can be seen the clearest from there.

I had read that rock formation was a highlight of the hike, but wanted to see it in person before looking at photos of it.

So I continued on the path, not really sure what I was looking for. Then, I turned around in the direction I had just walked from, and it hit me.

A tall, singular rock column stood alone. At the top, a rounded head with eyes, a mouth and a pointed nose had an uncanny resemblance to a monkey. It was easy to spot from that point on.

I snapped several photos of the sight, and continued on the river loop back to the starting point.

This hike was the first of several spring and summer adventures in Central Oregon that I plan to embark on in the coming months.

Smith Rock is popular, but I also want to visit some lesser-known spots. In doing so, I hope to provide readers a different look at some of the many natural beauties this place has to offer.

Will Denner is the sports editor of the Madras Pioneer.

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