ALMO — Driving through the tiny towns of Albion and Declo hardly hinted at what I was about to encounter in the Albion Mountains of south-central Idaho. The horizon line was distant against the wide rural landscape and snow-capped hills lined the sky as my Subaru wagon sputtered along the City of Rocks Backcountry Byway.
Arriving in Almo felt like a return to a history I had never inhabited. My first stop was the Tracy General Store — the oldest continuously operating mercantile in Idaho, situated on the Elba-Almo Highway — a gas-station, merchandise, lunch stop and general supplies stopover established in 1894, still true to its original architecture. The trademark brick wall displays its insignia on the original structure.
Ranchers sporting tall camouflage gaiters traipsed in to postmark and mail their letters at the local post office — also housed in the store — and enjoy made-to-order chicken chalupas, handcrafted by the store’s owner, Janis Durfee.
Decorated with hanging horse bridles, antique remnants of the early families in the area — such as shoes, quilts and a linoleum rug pattern collection handwoven by housewives of an earlier era — it has certainly preserved its historic charm. The mercantile even sports its original National Brand cash register, circa 1909, used to ring purchases until 2003. A McCaskey Register is the credit-keeping system, and Durfee sends out monthly bills to her customers after she tabulates their handwritten charges.
The tiny town of Almo is surrounded by Idaho’s three highest peaks south of the Snake River — Cache Peak, Mount Independence and Mount Harrison, all at or near 10,000 feet. That afternoon, the shadow of the mountains had not cast itself over the valley just yet, and as far as my eye could see, all that stood on the horizon were cattle and country.
Just 150 people are said to inhabit the serene environment, although, in the summer, thousands flock to world-class climbing just up the road at City of Rocks National Reserve. This “Silent City” sits along the most intact portion of the California Trail that once led emigrants through the hills to the gold mines of California.
But I had not come for history. I had come for adventure, and so I was forced to tear myself away and return to modernity — but not before I earned my own Almo postmarks from the Tracy General Store window — and mailed off evidence of my detour.
Just down the road at the Visitor’s Center, park Superintendent Wallace Keck explained that the City of Rocks was set aside to protect the history of the California Trail — particularly its geology.
Home to two types of plutons — masses of liquid rock that rise toward the surface, but cool underground before breaking the surface — the Green Creek pluton is 2.5 billion years old, formed in the Oligocene epoch, and the Almo pluton is 28 million years old, formed in the Archean geologic eon. The park boasts the “oldest rock exposed on the surface of the Earth west of Wisconsin and the Mississippi River,” according to Keck.
Having rafted the entire length of the Grand Canyon, I was amazed to learn that the Green Creek pluton is older than the infamous rock exposed in the Grand Canyon, where the Vishnu schist rock walls mesmerized me.
Creekside Towers Trail
Keck sent me out on a snowshoe tour of the Creekside Towers Trail, a geo-biographic crossroads where I could view the plutons and towering granite formations, with Ranger Laura Jones.
The rural reserve is situated at the crossroads of several distinct geographic regions including the Northern Basin and Range, the Snake River Plain of the Upper Columbia Basin, and Northern Rocky Mountains.
“The ecosystems are overlapping,” Keck said, “making it a rich place for studying, especially climate change.”
Our first stop was at Camp Rock, where we admired hundreds of axle grease signatures left by historic emigrants adorning the monolithic feature. A visitor’s sign reveals even more of these visible with specialized imaging against the ones that can be seen with the naked eye.
But this was just the beginning. We drove another few miles up the snowy trail in the ranger’s Jeep, the only vehicle amidst stunning rock formations and wide open sky and launched our mission from Bath Rock.
Strapping on my snowshoes with Ranger Jones at 5,890 feet of elevation while birds swooped above us still did not reveal the castles of granite I was about to witness. It wasn’t until a half-mile in or so that the densely spaced granite towers emerged.
The “Anteater” and “Morning Glory” spire formations draw thousands of climbers in the summer and fall, but on this snowy February day, the rocks stood proudly in their unabashed purity, undisturbed by eager athletes.
Windworn cracks split from the base of the spires and domes to their tips. As the edges of these ancient rocks kissed the sky, I marveled at the geologic wonders of the mountain basin, which was once a travel route established by the Northern Shoshoni, and later became a section of trail for the biggest westward emigration in U.S. history, via the California Trail from 1843-1882. I learned that emigrant James F. Wilkins coined the name City of Rocks back in the mid-19th century — 1849 to be exact.
Fast forward 170 years, and the ranger and I naively imagined we were the only creatures combing the basin of the 60-story pinnacles that afternoon, but we quickly discerned we were not alone from a fresh set of moose tracks in the snow.
It wasn’t long until we came upon the female moose, just near the “Incisor.” Careful to remain calm and keep our distance, it seemed she was not going to budge. We feared she was protecting her young, but after at least 15 minutes, no babies in sight, Jones made some low moose calls, and the animal’s large frame ambled off into the snowy pinyon pine and sagebrush.
The tracks she left behind left me to imagine those of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes that once hunted buffalo and gathered pinyon nuts right where I was standing.
Crust of the Earth
The maze of spires and rock is only one of three places in the country where such rocks can be seen at the surface, literally offering visitors a glimpse into the substance that comprises the crust of the earth.
Against a backdrop of the Albion Range, the sun began to set, shadowing the tips of the pinnacles and spires that soon will be littered with climbers as the season shifts.
But my eye was fixed to the top of Cache Peak, not so far off in the distance. “I’ll be back for you,” I whispered to the 10,338-foot gleaming mountain top, recalling what Keck said before I set out.
“The scenic grandeur and aesthetic appeal is of national significance,” he said. “There is something awe-inspiring when you are in the thick of it.”
Truly, it is. This will be the first of many reconnaissance missions for me.
“Almo and City of Rocks will certainly grow on you,” Keck said as I was leaving, “as long as you’re living in southern Idaho, you’ll have to make at least an annual trip.”