What Will be the Future of the Lower Gorge?

As of this morning, OPRD is now the owner of the 38+/- acre “McFarlane” lower gorge property!


The Gorge acquisition was unanimously approved with enthusiasm by the commission. WOOT WOOT!!

June 9, 2019

We took a stroll out to the Lower Gorge with John Rich, a long-time climbing aficionado of the Gorge Area, aka “Mayor of the Gorge.” We wanted to get his take on the proposed Oregon State Parks & Rec (OPRD) acquisition of 38 undeveloped acres to expand Smith Rock State Park there on both sides of the Crooked River.

The Gorge is a mix of park, private property and BLM land. Its towering walls of columnar basalt have been climbed for decades by traditional climbing methods with all retrievable protection, using the cracks between the columns. Sport climbing, or utilizing pre-drilled bolts for protection, is also popular there due to the variety of terrain plus the problem-solving ingenuity it takes to put routes up there vs the welded tuff throughout the bulk of the park.

The yellow lines designate the proposed acquisition, the blue is the current park boundary. Click to enlarge.

The "McFarlane property," divided by the Crooked River, was identified as a "property of interest" in the 1990 Smith Rock Master Plan. The acquisition would officially bring the Lower Gorge climbing area into the park system, as well as protect the scenic beauty of another 1,000-foot section of the Crooked River. The land on both sides of the river have been and are currently accessed by hikers, rock climbers and kayakers, but there are no vehicle access rights to the property. 

John remembers coming out there to climb on both sides of the Gorge as early as the mid 1970’s with his dad, driving up one of the roads that bordered the canal. Back then the ranchers were fine with a few stray climbers using the access road that connected eventually to the Burma Road, as long as they closed the gates behind them. With the closing of the bridge across the Crooked River due to illegal bungee jumping, access to the canal road was also shut down.

Today climbers access the east side via the Burma Road Trail in the park, just after the Wolf Tree Trail ends to get to the Student Wall area and other climbs. They can cross to the west side over boulders when the river is low, but mostly they use a fenced off trail behind OPRD property located by the overflow parking lot. It involves a scramble down ledges from the top of the cliff to reach the base of the columns, where they begin their routes, going just 60-80 feet up the walls, not all the way to the top, where the upper areas by the canyon rim are looser rock, not like the columns themselves.

Access on the west side begins along the rim ledge above the Gorge.

Access on the west side begins along the rim ledge above the Gorge.

John calls the Lower Gorge area “A great ‘summer crag’—a part of it is always in the shade, cooled by the breezes that swoop down the canyon walls and then come off of the river. You can start on the east side in the morning, then hop the boulders to the west side in the afternoon.” Combine that with abundant wildlife sightings of otters, blue heron, raptors, swallows, marmots, and even the occasional beaver, and you get the attraction of the area both for climbers and hikers alike.

John Rich begins his descent into the Lower Gorge’s west side.

John Rich begins his descent into the Lower Gorge’s west side.

Securing public access to the Lower Gorge now and in the future in light of increasing property development in the Smith Rock area will be great for generations to come.
— John Rich, Gorge aficionado

Stay tuned for the news from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission June 12 meeting in Prineville where the expansion of the Smith Rock State Park boundaries will be determined. They will convene an executive session 8:15 – 10:15 a.m. at the Crook County Library at 175 NW Meadow Lakes Dr. to discuss this and other real estate and legal issues. Executive sessions are closed to the public, but a business meeting will begin at 10:15 a.m. and that one is open to the public.

The full draft agenda and meeting packet are on the commission website:  oregon.gov/oprd/Pages/commission.aspx.

If you plan to present oral testimony (limited to 3 minutes each) you’ll need to provide 15 copies of your statement to Denise Warburton, commission assistant, at denise.warburton@oregon.gov.