In the quiet of the dawn, my sisters and I sat on what felt like the top of the world. We were in Central Oregon, perched at the summit of the volcanic spires of Smith Rock that shoot up, almost violently, 600 feet straight into the air. From that dizzying vantage point, we watched prairie falcons and golden eagles soar above the blue curl of the Crooked River in the canyon below and, in the distance, could see the jagged peaks of the Range – Mount Jefferson, Mount Bachelor, Broken Top, Three Sisters. The cool morning air was pungent with sage.
To stand atop the aptly named Misery Ridge, after a punishing climb virtually straight up the eastern face of Smith Rock or the more gradual switchbacks up the western face of the Mesa Verde Trail that we took, is to witness geologic time written on the land spread out before you in fearsome display.
We were, in truth, standing on the far northwestern rim of an ancient caldera. Sometime between 27 and 29 million years ago, give or take the argon dating, back in the Oligocene epoch, when the first grasses began to sprout and horses and a strange mammal with a trunk began to appear on Earth, an upswelling hot spot of molten rock, or magma, fissured a large swath of weak bedrock in what is now the high desert of central Oregon, causing it to collapse and form this enormous Crooked River Caldera. It was one of the largest supervolcanoes ever to erupt, leaving a crater 26 miles long by 17 miles wide. (Geologists now think that, over millions of years of shifting tectonic movement, that same hot spot has now migrated and sits underneath Yellowstone National Park.)
After that first massive rupture of the Earth’s crust, a series of catastrophic eruptions followed that filled the caldera with ash and debris, which was superheated in the magma and fused into what’s known as welded volcanic tuff - the stuff of Smith Rock.
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About a half-million years ago, 50 miles to the south of where we stood that morning, the Newberry Volcano erupted. Hot lava poured into the caldera and hardened into basalt cap. Over time, wind, rain and the persistence of the once-raging Crooked River eroded the tuff, ash and basalt until all that remained in this spot was the buff and tan-colored Smith Rock formation - cathedral-like spires, whimsical pillars (including one called Monkey Face that looks exactly like Curious George) and curved, serrated ridges that rise from the desert like dragon’s teeth. On this particular morning, it simply took our breath away.
My sisters and I had found the Smith Rock formation almost by accident. Though we were born and raised in Oregon, and my sisters live there still, we had only vaguely heard of the place. We had come to the high desert seeking refuge from our often hectic lives, on a sisters’ weekend retreat. They had “kidnapped” me for our first retreat in Sedona, Arizona, when I turned 40. We kept promising ourselves that we’d get together and go someplace special again - someplace awe-inspiring that would jolt us out of the stress of endless to-do lists and into a state of wonder. Someplace that would help us in our far-flung lives reconnect to each other. It had taken us 13 years.
At almost the last minute, we’d decided to take advantage of a reporting trip I would be making to Oregon, a long weekend and the proximity of my sister Mary’s birthday. We’d also decided that this time we’d take along our 83-year-old mother – who, though spry, can only travel so far. That limited our options. We scoured websites and made calls to lodges, spas, hotels and retreats throughout the Pacific Northwest, coming close to booking a yurt on a vineyard in Western Washington or a hotel on the Columbia Gorge. We finally settled on a three-bedroom cabin in Central Oregon’s Powell Butte.
The 1,800-acre Brasada Ranch Resort and Spa is perched on a rise. We arrived late at night, tired from driving in a hard rain, and were immediately shown into the casual Ranch House restaurant. We warmed ourselves against the late fall chill, sitting on dark leather couches by the big stone fireplace, and ate a light supper of local farm greens and sirloin dip sandwiches. What followed was to become our evening ritual for the remainder of our stay: We’d gather up soft fleece blankets and settle around one of Brasada’s many circular stone firepits, eat s’mores and drink hot chocolate. When the talk and laughter trailed off, we’d head back to our cabin, get into our swimsuits and help guide Mom out onto the back deck and into a steaming hot tub, where we soaked in awe under a desert sky bursting with stars.
We started our days with coffee and breakfast that was decadently delivered from the Ranch House to our cabin. We ate every morning on the sunny back deck – fresh fruit and yogurt, crispy chilaquiles or our favorite, an individual frittata served in a cast-iron skillet – gazing out at the volcanic Cascade mountains in the distance.
We spent the days exploring the area. We sisters did a short hike along the beautiful Metolius River while Mom insisted that she’d be fine enjoying the view from the car. We had massages at the Brasada’s spa with Oregon lavender sage-scented oil, and had our Ayurvedic “doshas” balanced at the Shibui Spa down the road. We ventured into the aptly named town of Sisters, stopping at Sisters Coffee Company’s refurbished rustic cabin, poking around the stores, eating “crazy good comfort food” at the Porch restaurant and sitting outside enjoying pinot noir and pinot grigio at the Open Door Wine Bar.
Late one afternoon, we headed out to the Crescent Moon alpaca ranch in Terrebonne because my Mom wanted to buy soft sweaters and scarves as gifts. Ever bored with shopping, I fed and hung out with the hilariously shaggy animals. Wondering what else was nearby, I did a search on Google Maps and spied the 623-acre Smith Rock State Park just down the highway. We decided to go.
With Mom happily watching a slow sunset at a picnic table overlooking the riot of geology below, we hurriedly began to trek down the steep, 500-foot Chute Trail. (Going up, some call it “the Grunt.”) We crossed the Crooked River High Bridge and began to ascend the Red Wall. Everywhere we looked, climbers on ropes, climbers in harnesses on slack lines high in the spires, climbers with helmets, headlamps and clinking carabiners were picking their way straight up the rock faces on routes with names such as the 550-foot “Picnic Lunch Wall,” Rude Boy, Kings of Rap, Vicious Fish and Taco Chips.
Since the 1980s, Smith Rock has been a sport-climbing mecca for climbers from all over the world, with more than 1,800 routes, some of them permanently bolted, up the volcanic tuff face. The impossible-looking climb up Chain Reaction once graced the cover of Newsweek magazine.
With the sun setting fast, tinting the rocks red and pink, and having no flashlights, we knew that we’d never make it to the top of Misery Ridge and back safely, so we turned back. That night, at the nearby Terrebonne Depot restaurant, over buffalo burgers and Boneyard IPAs brewed in nearby Bend, we decided we had to go back.
On a mission, we woke in the dark for the 30-minute drive to Smith Rock. In the pre-dawn gloom, we picked our way down the Chute and over the bridge, hiked along the Crooked River and hauled up to the top of Misery Ridge just as the sun rose. We had the entire place to ourselves. Like a sanctuary. Just the eagles. The prairie falcons. My sisters. The wind. And the sound of our own breath at the top of the world.
If you go
Where to stay
Brasada Ranch Resort and Spa: 16986 SW Brasada Ranch Road, Powell Butte; 866-373-4882, brasada.com. The resort sits on 1,800 acres in Powell Butte in Central Oregon, with a view of the Cascades in the distance, an athletic center, swimming pools, golf course, a spa, casual and more-formal restaurants, a general store and fire pits throughout the property. The resort offers king and mountain-view guest rooms, and ranch house suites in the hotel, which run from about $240 and $280 a night in the winter to $300 to $375 a night in the summer. The ranch also offers two, three and four-bedroom cabins.
Where to eat
Ranch House Restaurant: At Brasade Ranch Resort. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and features delicious “comfort food” including nachos, farmer’s pie, mac and cheese, and burgers.
Sisters Coffee Co.: 273 W. Hood Ave., Sisters; 541-549-0527, sisterscoffee.com. A rustic, wood-panelled cafe and roastery. Order house-made granola for $6 or a Rainshadow country breakfast, with eggs, bacon, potatoes and cheese for $10. Breakfast is served from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Open Door Wine Bar: 303 W. Hood Ave., Sisters; 541-549-6076, opendoorwinebar.com. Sit outside on the patio in the late afternoon (dinner starts at 5 p.m.) near the firepit and enjoy a bottle of famous Oregon pinot noir with a bread basket of house-made focaccia for $5 and house-made dips, including rosemary-roasted carrot or hot artichoke, for $8 and $9 respectively.
The Porch: 243 Elm St., Sisters; 541-549-3287, theporch-sisters.com. Visit for a hearty dinner and indulge in dishes including meat loaf wrapped in bacon ($26) and golden peanut curry ($18).
Terrebonne Depot: 400 NE Smith Rock Way, Terrebonne; wapo.st/TerrebonneDepot. Although the Depot can get crowded, we couldn’t think of a better place to relax after an evening hike at Smith Rocks. Cheeseburgers run about $10.25. Plan to add $2.50 for buffalo meat.
What to do
Smith Rock State Park: 9241 NE Crooked River Drive, Terrebonne; 800-551-6949, 541-548-7501, smithrock.com. Serious climbers can try one of the more than 1,800 routes at the 623-acre park. Hikers can choose from more than a dozen trails, from under two miles to more than seven, in the park and on surrounding public lands. Park open daily, Welcome Center open 8 a.m.-1 p.m Thursday -Sunday. $5 day-use fee.
Metolius River: oregon.com/recreation/hike-metolius-river. Meander along the Metolius River. The 5.4-mile, easy-grade trail passes under old-growth ponderosa pines and rushing springs. Open 24 hours.
Shibui Day Spa: 720 S. Buckaroo Trail, Sisters; 541-549-6164, shibuispa.com. Nestled on the FivePineLodge campus, the serene spa offers massages from $120. Facials and a host of Ayurvedic treatments, such as a 75-minute massage with hot oil for $170, are also available. Open Monday-Thursday 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday-Saturday 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Crescent Moon Alpaca Ranch: 7566 U.S. Highway 97, Terrebonne; 541-923-2285, crescentmoonranch.com. Hang out with an alpaca and have fun feeding the animals with the big personalities, or browse the boutique in the old potato cellar. Open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. in winter and
9 a.m.-5 p.m. in the summer. Free.