Smith Rock is a super fun place to visit, but it is crowded. Depending on your reason for visiting, you might be better off checking out the public lands that border the state park to the north. This area of the Ochoco National Forest, known as the Crooked River National Grassland, offers dispersed camping, mountain biking, horse riding, and hiking. You won’t get the up close view of climbers on the stunning walls of Smith Rock, but if you’re just looking for a quick quiet getaway to hike or bike in Central Oregon this is a great option.
I haven’t visited this part of my new home yet, so today was an exploratory outing. My goal was to hike Gray Butte, but I was unsure which route I would take. Since the snow is just melting I was having trouble finding info on road openings and conditions, so I went in with several routes planned. It turns out that my first hunch, hiking the road from a point about a mile in from pavement, worked out perfectly.
I turned off of Lone Pine Road at a small sign noting the Skull Hollow campground. This is an area frequently used by climbers for overflow camping with the Smith Rock campground is full. Skull Hollow is a small campground, but there are plenty of dispersed camping opportunities up the road (just don’t camp in the closed area, unlike the many people I saw contributing to the overuse).
The road was a bit rocky but fine for my Subaru Outback, and after about a mile I parked next to a water trough in a clearing with room for several vehicles. A closed gate marked the road I intended to take to the summit, so I locked up the car and set off on foot.
Paralleling the road I hiked is the Cole Loop trail. I heard voices and saw two equestrians on the trail. They seemed very concerned that I did not have a gun because there were mountain lions in the area. I’ve hiked in mountain lion terrain before and have never felt the need to carry a gun, but you can bet that I looked over my shoulder quite a bit on the rest of the hike. When I got home I searched for recent reports or sightings in the area and found none. I guess everyone lives with different levels of fear and paranoia. No one else I saw (1 hiker, 7 mountain bikers) were carrying a gun.
The hike is straightforward and follows the main access road to the summit. I saw a few wildflowers, no mountain lions, and only one other hiker on the road. The wind was whipping and the rain started just as I summited. After a quick summit snack and text to the husband, I turned around and fought the wind and needle sharp rain on the entire descent. Not much of a view on this rainy spring day, but I’m sure it is spectacular when it is clear!
I really enjoyed my first outing to this area. While I’m sure it is hot and dry in the summer, I plan on returning soon to check out the wildflowers as spring warms up!
In and Out dayhike on dirt road and trail. There are many options to link this hike to other trails, this map and GPS trail is only one option.
6.9 miles round trip from the watering trough along Forest Road 1395 at 3200 ft
+/- 1900 ft
Trailhead and Permit Notes:
This map and GPS track does not start from the ‘official’ Gray Butte trailhead, but as mentioned above, there are many access options that can be combined to create different hikes. While many trailheads in the Northwest require the Northwest Forest Pass (or the Interagency Pass), I found no signs or indications that it is required in this area, but double check before you go.
The Skull Hollow Campground is available where you turn off of pavement to enter public lands. Additionally, there are a ton of dispersed camping options in the area. Make sure to observe the closed dispersed camping area close to the campground.