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The high-desert landscape takes on a hue of blue as the sun sets behind the Albion Mountains. A distant truck rambles down the lonesome desert road kicking up an orange plume of dust that hangs in the air. We’ve purposely traveled 200-miles into nowhere to get to our final destination. My family and I came to spend a long weekend at the City of Rocks, a martian-like landscape where rocks appear to bubble up out of the desert sage.

large rock structures with entrance sign to city of rocks
Welcome to the City of Rocks.

Named for the prominent granite fins that protrude from the desert, the Silent City of Rocks was a milestone for emigrants traveling west in search of a new start or fortunes via the California Trail. Nowadays the wagon of choice is more Subaru than Conestoga. Still, throngs of visitors are still captivated by this polylithic city of stone.

At the outskirts of the “City”, we stop at the quaint township of Almo to stock up on ice. Not much has changed here in the last 150 years. Literally perched at the end of the pavement, Almo hasn’t been gussied up like so many towns of the Old West. Rather, it embraces its traditional ranching roots. The Tracy General Store claims to be the longest continuously run mercantile in the state, where the biggest change might be the addition of climbing chalk in the bin next to tack supplies.

But the end of the road is where the adventure begins and that’s why my family has packed our bags to make our fourth trip to the City of Rocks. Truck loaded with bikes, hiking shoes, a weekend’s worth of rations, the City of Rocks is the land of plenty of things to do.

Climbing

After the pioneers of yesteryear, climbing is what put the City of Rocks on the modern topographical map, and I would be remiss not to mention it. The two adjacent valleys, City of Rocks and Castle Rocks, have superior granite that draws climbers from around the world to tackle the 1000 or so routes in the region.

Climbs range from easy scrambling to the top-of-the-game, 5.14 routes. Most routes top out on silo-like features, requiring a climber to lead to the top to set up a top rope for others to follow.

The region is a patchwork of public and private lands, so it’s important to be mindful of what you can and cannot climb. Most private property is well marked and guidebooks can introduce you to the proper route information.

We set up a rope on an isolated stone in Castle Rocks and let the kids take protected round trips up and down the casual slope. My six-year-old struggles to get started, then finds a rhythm, finding holds for his hands and feet. Before he knows it, he’s at the top, flashes a grin and asks to be let down.

Young boy climbing a large rock in climbing gear
There’s no shortage of climbing adventures in Castle Rock State Park.

For those interested in getting a taste of the vertical under guided supervision, the park offers a Climbing Experience Program. A handful of authorized guides lead guided climbing trips in the City of Rocks and Castle Rock State Park.

Hiking

You don’t have to be a hard-core climber to enjoy all the advantages of big “City” life. With over 20 miles of trails, there’s more than enough trail to fill a weekend of hiking.

We park the car and make the 300-foot walk to Window Arch. The kids scramble over and through the rock while my wife surveys the spires that make up the “inner city” sanctuary. The trail sloughs off into the valley and serpentines between the rock spires to provide access to more technical climbs.

family climbs rocks
Enjoy a family adventure among the rocks.

For a little more tread time, head over the Castle Rocks State Park for a spectacular 5-mile Castle Rocks loop that encircles the park’s cinnamon-hued hoodoo spires. Maps of both parks are available at the park headquarters for $2.00.

Biking

After filling up on camp food, my son and I scope out the local trails and find a horse camp across from the Smoky Mountain Campground.

Many trails permit access for cyclists and horses alike. The 1.5-mile single track is one such trail, and pops us out at the Tracy homestead ruins, making for a great first mountain bike ride for my little shredders.

Yes, we shared the trail with a few local horses, but folks around here are accustomed to multi-use. Just practice a little courtesy, tip your hat, and yield to the gentle giants.

Walk back in time

“Back in the day”, Almo Valley and the City of Rocks served as a waypoint for westbound emigrants pursuing manifest destiny. It’s said that over 250,000 people rolled through the area between 1840’s-1870’s along the California Trail. They often marked their passage in axle grease, writing their names on the rock walls. Fifty or so names still stain the walls, which you can see on Register and Camp rocks.

Kids point at names written on rock.
A few of the names left behind by emigrants on the California Trail.

Back in Almo, my kids ogle the pair of wooden replica wagons, imagining what it would be like to travel together for months on end. My daughter raises an eyebrow at the thought and lets out an audible humph.

Modern day travelers can get a flavor of the trail by driving the 50-mile City of Rocks Back Country Byway, a route you’ll most certainly take as you travel to the City. Starting in Albion, the route encircles the Albion mountain range, cuts across the City of Rocks and closes the loop northward at the historic town of Oakley, hosting the largest concentration of old stone and wood-framed structures in Idaho.

Chuck wagon

A hard day of play can work up an appetite. If you are looking for something to liven up stale camp provisions, Almo offers a small handful of options.

The Outpost is the prominent old-timey building in town. Scattered with farming implements of forgotten past, you can get a hearty plate of steak sirloin and potatoes.

Rock City is a friendly mom’n pop’s shop where you can call in for pizza to take back to camp, or dine under the new outdoor pavilion. They offer a huge selection of 22oz microbrews and, you guessed it, climbing chalk.

The Tracy General Store sells odds and ends to cover what you might have left at home. Swing by to stock up on cookies, sandwiches or ice cream bars – a refreshing luxury after a hot afternoon at the rocks.

Making camp

If you’re going to make the trip, you gotta stick around for a little while. Two campgrounds are available through Reserve America’s website to accommodate nearly every level of comfort. Within the City of Rocks, 64 primitive drive-up sites hide nestled in between rock formations to provide an immersive camping experience and are available for $12 a night.

Traveling with a trailer? Hook up for $23 a night at the nearby Smoky Mountain Campground. Though 5-miles away from the park, the campground hosts flush toilets, electricity, showers, and each site has running water.

Interior of yurt with camping supplies.
Cozy up with family and friends in this Mongolian-style yurt.

Don’t have a camper (or traveling with non-campers)? We reserved one of the two Mongolian-style yurts ($55/night), bridging the gap between tent camping and formal lodging. Each yurt is fortified with a pair of bunks, a table, stove (for cooler nights), a fan (for warmer nights), and electricity.

Bonus! The Smoky Mountain campground is the official campground for Castle Rocks and gets you a parking permit to visit Castle Rocks State Park.

Within Castle Rocks State Park proper, overnighters can rent The Lodge for $160/night. The converted ranch house sports two beds, a single bath, a kitchen and several pullout couches — enough to accommodate up to 8 people. Immediately next door to the Lodge is the 12-bed bunkhouse that can be rented for $106 a night, or $12 a bunk for individuals (plus a $5/day vehicle pass).

Camping season starts in May and peaks in June, followed by a lull during the heat of the summer. Things pick back up again around September after the heat abates.

City of Rocks is closed in winter (snow typically buries the road after October), though The Lodge at Castle Rocks remains open year around.

Campers should plan to get online and snag the fiercely sought after weekend slots 6-months in advance.

An oasis in the desert

After a weekend of adventure, close out your trip and rest your weary body with a soak at Durfee Hot Springs. Idaho is rich with thermal features; Durfee is reminiscent of what is now the Yellowstone geyser complex. Natural springs bubble up to feed Durfee Hot Springs just north of Almo. Three pools allow visitors to swim and soak at a pleasant 84˚-104˚F. Adults: $8; 11 and under: $3.

Hesitant to leave, my kids chase lizards as I load the truck. I hoist up a bag that weighs three times what it should, unzip the pockets and find a stack of rocks buried between the toothbrushes and stuffies. “We want to build our own City of Rocks back at home!” chirped my kids.

City life has that kind of effect; you leave always wanting a little more. True enough, three days have passed and we’re already talking about returning for our fifth trip in the fall.

All photos, including feature image, are credited to Steve Graepel.

Artist, writer, adventurer, father of two, Steve Graepel is in constant pursuit of the balanced life. Living in Idaho, he can pursue it with gusto. Steve’s work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line and Gearjunkie.com.

Steve and his wife Kelly live in Boise, Idaho with their two children, Chloe and Ethan.