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The rich diversity of Idaho’s landscape is so unique that when exploring the vast backcountry some spots feel as though you’ve landed on another planet. The City of Rocks National Reserve is one of those places. In a little-known corner of Idaho near the Utah border is an area full of natural beauty and endless possibilities. Hundreds of gigantic granite monoliths sprout out of the surrounding terrain like new seedlings after a fresh spring rain. These rocks come in all shapes and sizes, and provide bountiful opportunities for beginner or accomplished rock climbers, and every kind of adventurer in between.

Entrance sign to City of Rocks National Reserve

Long before it was a rock-climbing destination, the City of Rocks was a resting spot for the early pioneers in the 1800’s travelling along the California Trail.  The dirt road leading into the area today gives visitors the feel of traveling down the same path as the early emigrants seeking fortune out west, finding these massive rock outcroppings protruding from the ground out in the middle of nowhere.

The area is a paradise for geologists. The variations among the granite are noticeable by sight with their differing color and texture. One form of granite in the area called the Green Creek Complex has been dated to be 2.5 billion years old, representing some of the oldest visible rock on the continent.

Two giant rocks with a road between them.

The small town of Almo sits just outside the park, where those who would prefer to opt out of camping can find a comfy bed at the Almo Inn. There is also a general store and a few restaurants before the road turns to dirt leading into the City of Rocks.  Before leaving town we stopped at the park’s visitor center where a friendly guide answered our questions and provided pamphlets on different hikes, points of interest, plants and animals in the area, and more. If you are the curious type or have children, definitely make sure you stop at the visitor center to stock up on helpful info.

The real magic on a trip like this begins when night falls at City of Rocks . With the closest major city hours away, the lack of light pollution and high elevation makes for some of the most impressive stargazing I have ever seen. The bright sky lit up the rocky landscape, creating a combo view of earth and sky that you simply would have to see to really appreciate. Unfortunately a layer of clouds were present during this trip, offering openings to the beautiful star scene from time to time, yet making it almost impossible to photograph effectively.

Large rock formations at City of Rocks.
Looking down into the valley from the start of Creekside Trail.

Early in the morning before the sun came up, it rained. To my dismay the rock was too wet to climb safely. In the springtime the weather can be hit and miss: a camper who climbs here regularly said this time of year is either bright sunshine or overcast and wet. However, the clouds did indeed partially part, leaving pockets of sunshine to light up the valley for the day but not enough to fully dry out the rock to a safe level for climbing.

Luckily I brought my mountain bike to explore the area. The City of Rocks Visitor Center has a map of bike trails available to help you navigate the over 14,000 acres within the reserve. But even the unambitious will find value in packing the bike, as even a ride through the large campground area has a lot to offer including a look at all unique campsites available in the park.

To minimize erosion and to provide a relaxed hiking experience, some trails are only approved for foot traffic.  I locked up the bike to explore different areas of the park at a more leisurely pace. While on foot, you can really take in the sheer size and age of these giants as you can get right up close, even walking up and around to take in the different views.

The Creekside trail is probably the most popular trail with close proximity to the campground and other offshoot trails along the way. The view of the valley is stunning, with giant formations that extend from the immediate foreground into the far distance.  I enjoyed walking this trail and watching the perspective change with every step, filling up the memory card on my camera with each photo changing slightly from different vantage points along the trail.

Large rock at City of Rocks.
A view of Parking Lot Rock, a popular climbing spot in City of Rocks National Reserve.

While it can be unfortunate when things don’t go exactly as planned, the beautiful thing about outdoor adventure is there are no rules. So while I missed out on the rock climbing, I was able to explore a big area by bike and then slow it down on foot, providing an excellent first introduction. The good news is that the rocks aren’t going anywhere, and with the protection of both the National Park Service and management by Idaho State Parks, nothing else will be developed there so I’ll have plenty more opportunities to get to know the area even better.

Getting There: City of Rocks National Reserve is in southern Idaho, roughly halfway between Boise and Salt Lake City along the historic California Trail and City of Rocks Backcountry Byway.

From Boise: Take I-84 east for 161 miles to exit 216, just past Burley. From there you will follow ID-77 through a few small communities toward Almo.

Click here for a map.

From Pocatello/Idaho Falls: Take I-86 west to the junction with I-84 where you will merge on to I-84E and take exit 228. From there take ID-81E for 15 miles. In the town of Malta, turn right onto Center Street/ID-77. This turns into Elba-Almo road which takes you through Almo. Right after Almo is the turnoff to City of Rocks National Reserve.

From Salt Lake City: Follow I-15N toward the Idaho border and take exit 5. Follow UT-30W for 55 miles. There will be a left turn to head toward the park, or you can continue for only a few minutes into Almo where you can pick up supplies and get information from the visitor center.

Click here for map.

All photos, including feature image, provided by Steven Andrews.
Steven Andrews uses multiple mediums to share stories, whether through written or spoken word, or visual imagery. Steve enjoys exploring the world while interacting with nature and exploring diverse lands. He loves Idaho for its world class outdoor activities, friendly people, and easy-going lifestyle. You can find more of his tales at whererusteve.com or on Instagram@whererusteve.

Published on May 12, 2016