ALMO — In the startling winter silence of Eagle Rock Grove Wetland, the gurgle of Almo Creek and the calls of mountain chickadees are exquisite.
Snowbanks overhang the creek, and elaborate ice crystals adorn branches that trail in the water. The towering granite pillars here block the wind on stormy days and soak up the sun on clear days.
This grove of cottonwoods and junipers inside Castle Rocks State Park is a special destination — not just for ravens and robins, but for the lovers of solitude and natural beauty. You’ll enjoy the journey, too: a 1.5-mile round trip on snowshoes, with sweeping views of the Almo Valley and the mountains beyond.
Exploring Castle Rocks by snowshoe is a must-do for your Idaho adventure list — although, strangely, one that’s still little known. And this is a fantastic winter for it.
Sure, you could get the snowshoe experience at a manicured ski resort. But it’s not the same.
“We’re still the wild, scenic park that you’re not going to get anywhere else,” Castle Rocks park manager Wallace Keck said Jan. 12, as I set out to snowshoe with Juanita Jones, chief of interpretation.
This winter’s heavy snow highlights the dramatic backdrop of eroded granite columns and displays a complicated narrative of wildlife tracks.
It’s wild here, but not forgotten.
Rangers make regular patrols, and they’re on call around the clock. Stay on accessible roads in Castle Rocks or nearby City of Rocks National Reserve, and it should never be more than 24 hours before a ranger on patrol finds your vehicle.
“We offer a comfort level they may not know exists,” Keck said.
Winter weather can be milder at Castle Rocks than at City of Rocks, because the elevation is lower and the Albion Mountains do a better job of blocking the wind. Roads are cleared to and within Castle Rocks even when City of Rocks roads are impassable. And if you get stuck in Castle Rocks, help is closer.
Nervous about losing the snowshoe trail in heavy snow? There’s little need. The park’s trail maps are detailed, and major landmarks are usually in sight.
Still, in mid-January the park did two things to make snowshoers more comfortable: It marked the main trail with blue diamonds, and it began grooming several trails.
What you’ll pay
A daily $5 motor vehicle entry fee is required year-round at Castle Rocks — unless you have the $10 annual Idaho State Parks Passport.
You can rent snowshoes at the park’s visitor center: $10 per person (up to three people); $7 per person for families (four or more people); $5 per person for youth groups (ages 7-17); $2 per person for school groups (advance notice required); and free for children 6 and younger.
The staff there can recommend good trails for snowshoeing and give you a map.
From Interstate 84, take Exit 216 at Declo. Go south on Idaho 77 to the Conner Creek Junction stop sign, then turn west onto Idaho 77 Spur toward Almo. The road curves to the south, and it reaches the access to Castle Rocks (2800 South) just before Almo. Stay on the highway a little longer to reach the visitor center for Castle Rocks and City of Rocks — just south of the town’s post office and businesses.
The visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, but you can arrange in advance to rent snowshoes on Sundays and Mondays. Call 208-824-5901.
Tip: The staff here is particularly proactive about posting current weather and road conditions on Castle Rocks State Park’s Facebook page.
Think you’d feel more comfortable heading out with a park ranger?
On Jan. 28, Feb. 4 and Feb. 11, Castle Rocks will offer three-hour guided snowshoe hikes to some of the park’s most spectacular views. You’ll need reservations for these; get in touch with Jones at 208-824-5916 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet at 10:30 a.m. in Castle Rocks’ lower parking area for those free Saturday hikes, and bring your lunch. You’ll pay the regular vehicle entrance fee — if you don’t have the Idaho State Parks Passport — but the park will provide snowshoes and waive the rental fee.
In fact, Keck said, visitors can ask for a guided hike anytime. A ranger can eliminate any worry about getting lost and tell you about wildlife and park features.
“If we are available, we would love to get that hike,” Keck said. “And we’re taking you to the really cool things that they might miss otherwise.”
Not sure your family is ready to rent snowshoes? There’s an absolutely free way to try out snowshoeing: a quarter-mile trail in a field just outside the visitor center, where you can use the center’s snowshoes for free and not even pay the $5 vehicle fee. You’ll see three mountain ranges while you play in the snow but always be near restrooms and a warm building.
Park information: Parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/castle-rocks