ALMO • As you drive along a dirt road toward the City of Rocks National Reserve, granite spires emerge, shooting from the horizon and piercing the blue sky. Further up the road, the landscape twists and bulges as rolling hills of sagebrush give way to a strange jumbleof rocks.
The scene that rises before you is the same one emigrants saw as they made their way across the California Trail to a new world in the West. They thought this area resembled a dismantled city of rocks, and the name stuck. In 1852, about 52,000 people traveled through City of Rocks on their way to California goldfields.
But before these early visitors passed through in wagons, Shoshone-Bannocks roamed this land hunting and gathering nuts from the largest pinyon pine tree forest in Idaho. The reserve has some of the tallest pinyon pines in Idaho at more than 55 feet.
Today the reserve attracts 100,000 visitors a year who come to hike, bike and climb. And for two-thirds of those people, City of Rocks is the destination of their travels — not a stop on their way to elsewhere.
What’s the big attraction? World-class rock climbing on granite faces.
Which Rocks Can I Climb?
Favorite climbing locations include Rabbit Rock, Morning Glory Spire and Bread Loaves. You are not allowed to climb the rocks along the California Trail such as Camp, Treasure and Register. The reserve features about 700 developed routes. A permit to climb is not required, but managers recommend that you stop at the visitor center for information, regulations and maps. If you want to put in a new climbing route you will need a permit.
Routes are a mixture of moderate to difficult, so climbing experience is required.
“Most rock climbers have been here or heard of us,” said Wallace Keck, City of Rocks superintendent.
If you are new to rock climbing, consider enrolling in the Climbing Experience Program, designed to introduce participants to techniques and equipment; make reservations by calling 208-824-5901.
What Can I Do Besides Rock Climb?
If you look closely you can spot a silhouette gliding across puffy white clouds. If you don’t lose it in the sun, you might see it dart back to its nest high atop Treasure Rock.
The rocks and trees in City of Rocks National Reserve shelter winged inhabitants such as the golden eagle, gray flycatcher, pinyon jay, juniper titmouse, canyon wren and Virginia’s warbler. Even the state bird — the mountain bluebird — frequents this metropolis of stone.
Be sure to pick up a bird checklist at the visitor center. It has 142 species that have a confirmed or highly expected presence at the reserve. The checklist also includes birds you might spot on your drive home.
It will help you keep track of your sightings as well as let you know what birds to look for. New or rare bird sightings are important to reserve employees, so if you spot one not on the list, let them know.
The reserve also has elk, mule deer, mountain lions, gophers, rattlesnakes, coyotes and more.
Why Is It Called Treasure Rock?
The legend, Keck said, is that a Kelton stage was robbed around 1878 on its way to a U.S. military camp in Boise. One of the robbers buried the money at the base of what we now call Treasure Rock.
Fact or fiction? We may never know.
Why? Because you can’t dig in a national park, Keck said.
Why Should I Visit Camp Rock?
If you enter the reserve from the Almo entrance — by the visitor center — you’ll be on City of Rocks Road, which leads through the reserve. One of the first things you might see is a massive dome of white and gray rock on the left. Follow the trail to the east side of Camp Rock where you can still see names of emigrants written in axle grease. The names look like travelers wrote them yesterday. Look for Ida Fullinwider’s name in capital letters. Fullinwider was from Kansas and passed through this area with her parents and siblings when she was 16.
Register Rock at the intersection of City of Rocks Road and Twin Sisters Road also features signature of emigrants.
You might consider downloading the automobile tour from the reserve’s website to help you map out your journey. For this guide, visit http://www.nps.gov/ciro/planyourvisit/automobile-tour.htm.
Available at the visitor center for $2.83 is the Geological Interpretive Trail guide that explains how the rocks in the reserve formed.
Can I Explore the Backcountry?
Overnight backpacking in Indian Grove is free with a permit.
Indian Grove Trail is 1.6 miles long. You can park your car in the Emery Pass picnic area. Once you hike in, you get a view of the highest point in the reserve, Graham Peak, at 8,867 feet.
It has been said that the Shoshones and Bannocks used to observe California Trail emigrants from this grove.
How Many Trails Are There to Hike?
The reserve has 13 designated trails ranging from easy to strenuous. Looking for a trail to take your family on? Consider Window Arch Trail, a short 300-foot walk to an arch spanning 20 feet. Here you can see how erosion plays a part in the reserve’s unique landscape.
Looking for something a little tougher? Try out North Fork Circle Creek Trail, a little more than three miles long. Here you can connect to Indian Grove Trail by walking an additional two miles if you really seek solitude inside this already silent city of rocks.