New City of Rocks mountain bike trail screams through Idaho’s world-class scenery

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJuly 15, 2013 

Nick Popkey of Boise flies by 2.5-billion-year-old rocks faster than they can erode.

DAN POPKEY

Crews have completed a trail that begins with views to the Wasatch Front 100 miles to the east, crosses the California Trail and winds through a picturesque drainage to the Smoky Mountain Campground at Castle Rocks State Park.

The new 2.4-mile route complements a less-well-known aspect of the complex comprised by the state park and the City of Rocks National Reserve, famed worldwide among rock climbers.

I rode the new Smoky Mountain Connector on Saturday, which runs from the Circle Creek Ranch Overlook, a trailhead for other foot, bike and equestrian trails at City of Rocks. Camping with my son, Nick, and his buddy, Braden Blaser, we were wowed by the views all the way to the Bear River Mountains at the north end of the Wasatch.

We stumbled on the route after riding the Geo Watt and Stripe Rock trails and doing some bouldering along the way. Thanks to good timing — after repairing Blaser’s tweaked chain — we ran into the trail’s builder, climbing ranger Brad Shilling.

“It’s single track,” said Shilling, allowing that folks from Boise might not be much impressed by a 2.4-mile ride.

He understated the work done by him and his crew. The new trail climbs a bit before snaking tightly down a slope and through the 2.5-billion-year-old granite that makes City of Rocks better than any movie set. The downhill races through still-green country at around 6,000 feet and down a canyon to the Smoky Mountain Campground. It's technical in spots, but nothing that would scare an intermediate rider with the good sense to stop or slow for roots and rocks.

We also rode the 2.5-mile Tea Kettle Trail, with breathtaking views of the rocks on the descent from the Bread Loaves formation. This is the sort of ride that makes reluctant mountain bikers converts. Because of fairly significant grazing that continues in the reserve, we lost the trail briefly. The result was another reward: an I’m-in-Mongolia moment as we bounded through a dry meadow with cattle as our companions.

Shilling said the riding is even better in the state park, because the terrain is less up-and-down. On the massif around Castle Rock, a network of trails includes the 6-mile Castle Rocks Trail. That route circles the state park's Ranch Unit, a day-use area, passing through Bureau of Land Management and Sawtooth National Forest lands.

Because this is an area that gets more use from hikers and equestrians than cyclists, Shilling said its important to remember trail etiquette: Bikers yield to both those on foot and horseback. Another caution: Trails are sandy in spots, no surprise in a landscape that's a testament to wind and rain.

After the ride, scrub off the grit with a plunge at Durfee Hot Springs in Almo, a family-friendly treasure with a 50-by-50 swimming pool and three hot pools of escalating temperature. The water is so ample the pools are chemical-free. No green hair from this joint.

This Cassia County gem is an easy trip from Boise, mostly on I-84, either though Declo, Albion and Almo, or Burley and Oakley. It’s 205 miles on the Albion route, and just under 200 miles via Oakley, though the Oakley drive includes about 15 miles of good dirt road to the heart of the reserve. I find that making a loop of the drive helps tilt kids' heads from their devices.

City of Rocks National Reserve was created 25 years ago this year, thanks to the late-Sen. Jim McClure, R-Idaho. City of Rocks is a unit of the National Parks System, operated in cooperation with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. Castle Rocks State Park is 10 years old.

Excellent camping is available at both areas and reservations are recommended.

City of Rocks has about 60 developed sites with tables and toilets. Many are hard by — or even on — the famous rock. Water is available at Bath Rock. About half the sites require a short walk from parking. A backcountry camping area favored by equestrians is on the north side of the reserve. Designated sites are available for groups of 12 to 35.

At Smoky Mountain, the state park has 37 serviced campsites, six equestrian sites and two yurts. The only overnight use at the Ranch Unit is at the bunkhouse, a hostel-like building for 12 charging $12.72 a head, and a century-old ranch house called “The Lodge,” accommodating up to eight for $155 a night.

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