Rising out of the plains of southern Idaho, in the foothills of the Albion Mountains, the City of Rocks National Reserve is a matchless destination for families that like to rock climb or explore. Spring through fall, thousands of visitors come to camp, walk through the reserve, experience the California Trail, ride horses and visit the town of Almo. Most, however, come to climb the granite outcroppings, which are surrounded by thin forests of pine, stands of aspens and fields of sage, which hold hundreds of rock climbing routes ideal for climbers of all abilities."There are only a few places that have as many fun, moderate routes that are also good for kids,” stated Paul Shilton, an avid climber from the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.
Having first climbed at “The City” in 1980, Paul is no stranger to the reserve. With over 30 years of climbing under his harness, if you climb, you’ve probably shared a crag in Utah, Colorado or Idaho with this unassuming man. As soon as his two sons were capable, Shilton started taking them on climbing trips, and City of Rocks has become one of their favorites.
Long before climbers discovered the fabulous rock of The City, homesteaders settled the village of Almo, just outside the present-day reserve, although thousands of westbound emigrants passed through this section of the California Trail before there were any homesteaders. Prior to those pioneers, Shoshone and Bannock tribes hunted the grounds. Evidence of all these folks can be found throughout The City. Names of those who passed are written in axel grease on the walls of climbs like Camp and Register Rock, and wagon ruts are worn into the stone near the Twin Sisters.
The drive up the hill from Almo into the reserve leads to Circle Creek Basin, which is surrounded by surreal formations. A closer look at the stone reveals a kaleidoscope of colors on their walls caused by mineral deposits, lichen and mosses.
Climbing in The City is exciting and may take time to get used to. Most routes hover near vertical, putting the focus on your feet, a great skill for new climbers to master and old climbers to remember. Route lengths vary from short to long, and may require two ropes to descend. “City of Rocks Idaho: A Climber’s Guide” by Dave Bingham gives detailed descriptions.
From sport climbs, like She’s the Bosch, Power Tools and Calamari, to stout cracks and not-so-straight-forward mixed climbs like Terror of Tiny Town, Beware of Nesting Egos and Strategic Defense, there are hundreds of routes rated 5.11 or harder and hundreds rated easier. More often than not, these climbs are located near each other, which makes it possible for an advanced climber to share time with a new or younger person at the same crag.
For many seasoned climbers, topping out on one of the numerous formations in The City is a must. It can be the easy fourth-class Rebar Route on the west side of Bath Rock or the ultimate Crack of Doom, a 5.11, on Morning Glory Spire. Standing on top of climbs like Anteater, Window Rock, Lost Arrow Spire and many others, offers an exhilarating relief over the sweeping pines and sage.
Just north of Almo, on the crags beneath Cache Peak, Castle Rock State Park was established in 2003. The rock is the same granite as The City and for a $5 daily fee the Castle is a quick trip from the reserve. Those who make the short drive will be rewarded with hundreds of newer routes, several being ideal for young and beginner climbers.
On rest days from climbing you can wander miles of developed trail on foot, mountain bike, tour the historic California Trail Corridor or go on guided horseback rides with Indian Grove Outfitters. Guided hikes are organized by the reserve and may include birding, wildflower or historical themes. Stargazing programs are popular at Castle Rock. Check with the visitor center for a schedule.
Durfee Hot Springs in Almo offers a chance to relax your body and let your kids splash about in three pools separated by temperature.
Driving through Almo offers visitors a look back in time. Left and right, faded cabins and outbuildings season the parcels of ranch and farmland. Some of the first structures built in the area still stand. Behind a sign pointing the way to the Old Homestead Bed and Breakfast is a skeleton of a building that once housed a bar and brothel. The Tracy General Store, built with brick in 1894, is a convenience store, gas station and post office. At the entrance to Castle Rock State Park you will find the historic ranch house built in 1893, which is now a guesthouse that you may reserve.
Returning from a day at the Castle or leaving the reserve, stop by the Almo Creek Outpost for a burger or steak followed by their delicious Pioneer Pudding, or try a sandwich or pizza, piled on top of bread and dough made daily by the Ogren family. While waiting for your eats you can chat up the locals and hear tall tales about the Almo Massacre or stagecoach robberies and lost gold.
Spring and fall are the ideal times to climb in the City, but summer sees the most traffic. Afternoon rain showers are common and nights are cool. Mosquitoes, deer and horse flies can be avoided with bug spray and you can evade the summer sun by chasing shade around the many formations.
Paul Shilton and his boys also always add one more fun element to their trips to City of the Rocks. They have a tradition of turning in only after they’ve seen a shooting star streak across The City’s night sky.