Climb, or climb on your bike, and ride City of Rocks

National reserve and state park add bicycle trails.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJuly 25, 2013 

Nick Popkey rides past 2.5 billion-year-old rocks.

DAN POPKEY

City of Rocks is world famous for its rock climbing, but its unique landscape and scenery make it an interesting place for mountain bikers.

Crews recently 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 recently rode the new Smoky Mountain Connector, 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 elevation 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 down 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 pedaled 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 steep. 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.

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.

This Cassia County gem is an easy trip from Boise, mostly onInterstate 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 and 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 nearby — or even on — the famous rock. Water is available at Bath Rock.

At Smoky Mountain, the state park has 37 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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