In 1849, James Wilkins, one of the first wagon travelers along what became the California Trail through southern Idaho, wrote, “We encamped at the City of the Rocks, a noted place from the granite rocks rising abruptly out of the ground. They are in a romantic valley clustered together, which gives them the appearance of a city.”
Unfortunately, Wilkins, an accomplished and well-known British- born artist, did not leave any paintings or sketches to go with his artistic naming of the area. However, his wistful naming of the area stuck, and more than 165 years later those striking granite spires continue to hold watch over the valley. Today’s travelers, however, are able to enjoy the amenities of a modern city that were unavailable to Wilkins in 1849.
The best way to the City of Rocks is from the east, through the town of Almo where, as one local advertisement has it, “The pavement ends and the West begins.” All of the other roads to the City (as it is commonly referred to) are dirt roads between 20 and 70 miles long. Today, more than 100,000 people from all over the world visit the City each year, most of them rock climbers. However, climbing is just one slice of the recreational, cultural and historical attractions that have made it one of the most popular tourist spots in southern Idaho.
The City of Rocks was made a national reserve in 1988, a status different from a national park in that it “reserves” some uses for the public in acknowledgment of the history, culture and economies of the area. At the City, those include permitted cattle grazing, hunting and trapping—in accordance with Fish and Game rules and regulations—and collecting pinion nuts, currants, chokecherries and elderberries for personal, though not commercial, use.
Summer is the busiest season and some holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day will see all the available designated campsites and lodging accommodations filled. Last summer, every campsite at the City was booked every day during the month of June, the first time this has happened. It is unlikely it will be the last. There are, however, some BLM and Forest Service lands around the Reserve that are available for dispersed camping.
The best and most comprehensive guidebooks to climbing at the City, as well as the nearby Castle Rocks State Park, were written by longtime Wood River Valley resident Dave Bingham. Bingham is currently working on a new and updated guide to both areas. In one of his books he writes, “The early days of climbing at the City of Rocks are still shrouded in mystery.” It is hard to imagine that hundreds of years ago the more adventurous of the indigenous Shoshone-Bannock boys and girls did not find a way to scramble up the granite formations, if for no other reason than that they were there. Nonetheless, a 1999 guide book written by Tony Calderone states that “Jean Nicholson was the first person of record to climb many of the major formations in the City. Jean lived on the Circle Creek Ranch and explored the City of Rocks as a young girl.”
Archeological evidence suggests that humans have been in the City of Rocks for 9,000 years. Before the 19th century, that presence comprised people of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes. America’s westward expansion during the 1800s, and the settling of Idaho, would displace the centuries-old hunting and gathering lifestyles of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, forcing those peoples in 1868 onto the Fort Hall Reservation in eastern Idaho.
The first Anglo-American settlers in the late 19th century were dry-land farmers and ranchers. Through the drought years of the 1920s and ’30s, however, only the ranchers were able to survive. Until climbing began to turn the area into a tourist attraction, Almo was a small, quiet, ranching community with a grocery store, gas station, church, post office and an elementary school. No alcohol was sold in the store (Tracy’s), and there were no restaurants, hotels or motels.
By the 1960s and ’70s, climbers from Utah and Idaho and other parts of the West were establishing routes on those fine granite rocks. Their increasing presence brought some economic activity but also altered the culture and amenities of the area in ways the earliest settlers would never have imagined.
Today, there are over 100 campsites, including 38 at Smoky Mountain Campground accessed via a paved road. The City of Rocks sites include several vault toilets, which most visitors consider the cleanest they have ever seen, two water pumps and three group camp sites. The more expensive and comfortable Smoky Mountain sites include electrical and water hookups at every site, showers, bathrooms with flush toilets, and dump facilities. There are six horse sites, and all sites are pet friendly.
Climbing is the most popular City activity, but it is far from its only attraction. There are more than 22 miles of hiking trails, from short flat loops to long steep peaks, winding through the Reserve. Mountain biking along some, but not all, of these same trails and the roads within the area is growing in popularity. In addition, the area is a bird watcher’s paradise in which more than 150 species have been documented and where more than 100 species have been counted in a single day.
Horseback riding is a part of the City culture and has become a popular recreation activity. There are several equestrian trails and day horse trailer parking in two spots. For those who don’t have their own horses, Indian Grove Outfitters is a licensed outfitter for the Reserve. Hunting is allowed in both the City of Rocks and at Castle Rocks, though there are restrictions on where firearms may be discharged, as well as on field dressing and the disposal of animal waste.
The official website of City of Rocks states that auto touring is “more popular than climbing” at the City. And both by car and foot, those interested in geology and photography will find enough to keep them engaged for, at least, a lifetime. Some of the spectacular granite towers visible at the City of Rocks are among the oldest exposed rock on Earth, dating back 2.5 billion years.
IF YOU GO…
There are now two restaurants in Almo that serve beer and wine: the Almo Inn (closed in winter) and Rock City. Rock City makes its own pizza dough from scratch and has a wine and beer selection based on requests from climbers.
The Almo Inn offers eight rooms plus three cabins of rustic elegance, including “a deluxe room, or the Cowboy’s choice with a Jacuzzi in your room.” The Lodge at Castle Rock Ranch sleeps six adults, a bunkhouse that sleeps eight to 12 adults and two yurts that sleep four to six adults.
For those with sore and tired bodies from recreating, Durfee’s Hot Springs has four pools of different temperatures to relax in.
The City of Rocks is open year-round, though some roads may be impassable in winter. The visitor center in Almo is open seven days a week in summer, and Tuesday through Saturday in winter. Information about camping, tours, activities and road conditions can be obtained at the center or by phoning 208.824.5901, or by contacting nps.gov/ciro.