Outdoors Blog

Don’t miss the history lesson at City of Rocks

Scenes from City of Rocks and Castle Rocks

Check out some of the top sites at City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park near Almo, Idaho.
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Check out some of the top sites at City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park near Almo, Idaho.

City of Rocks is known for its namesake: Giant, oddly shaped rocks dot the landscape.

But the park’s No. 1 mission is to preserve and interpret the California Trail, the lesser-known offshoot of the Oregon Trail that emigrants used to divert to California.

[Related: Test yourself on the granite at City of Rocks.]

Wallace Keck, who manages City of Rocks and nearby Castle Rocks State Park, gave me a driving tour of the area last week.

Boise's Oliver Cripe participates in the Climbing Experience Program at City of Rocks National Reserve near Almo, Idaho.

Here are a few things I learned:

▪ The California Trail split from the Oregon Trail where the Raft River and Snake River converge. Two days later, the emigrants found themselves surrounded by massive rocks jutting out of the ground. You can still see emigrant signatures, written with axle grease, at places like Camp Rock. That’s also where you can find some writings that aren’t authentic — placed there decades ago as part of a myth about battles between settlers and American Indians designed to help get the land protected, Keck said. “The true story is fascinating enough,” Keck said, “but here’s that other layer that is fascinating to talk about.”

Emigrants camped at Camp Rock. “This was a park experience even for them,” Keck said.

Playing Outdoors writer Chadd Cripe wore a GoPro while climbing Five Cracks at City of Rocks. Check out his view.

He pointed out one profile drawn on the rock with the inscription, “Wife wanted.”

“Facebook started on the rocks,” Keck said.

He also pointed out the name Ida Fullinwider of Kansas. Research has shown that she was 16 years old, traveling with her parents, and made it to California. The next record of her is in Salt Lake City.

“We come out with some pretty good stories,” Keck said.

The California Trail was used for migration from 1843 to 1882.

▪ The granite that forms City of Rocks is some of the oldest rock in the country, Keck said. The Twin Sisters are 2.5 billion years old and 25 million years old, he said. “Nothing out West compares to the age of the rock right there,” he said.

▪ City of Rocks and Castle Rocks offer a diverse set of options for spending the night. Inside City of Rocks, more than 60 campsites are nestled among the rocks — creating some incredible vistas when you pop out of your tent. Vault toilets are scattered, though. Inside Castle Rocks, you can stay at the Lodge — a house built in 1912 and extensively renovated that rents for $159 per night and sleeps up to eight. The house includes a full kitchen, dining room, living room, TV room, three bedrooms, a bathroom and a deck. The nearby Bunkhouse rents for $106 per night and sleeps up to 12. Or, you can rent a bed for $12.72 per night. But the bathroom is the outhouse across the road. Two RV spots are available to anyone who rents either building. And outside the parks, State Parks and Recreation offers the Smoky Mountain Campground with nearly 40 camp spots and two yurts. Smoky Mountain is paved with electric and water hookups, showers, flush toilets and an RV dump station.

I stayed in the Lodge (photo below) and would recommend that option for a group or a family with someone who doesn’t like to camp. I grilled dinner on the deck both nights, enjoyed the views of Castle Rock and appreciated a bed and shower after spending the previous three nights camping in the Sawtooths.

lodge exterior
The Lodge at Castle Rocks State Park sleeps eight. Chadd Cripe ccripe@idahostatesman.com

▪ Some of the easy-to-spot rocks at City of Rocks: Scotty Dog, Rabbit Rock and Twin Sisters. Twin Sisters is off-limits to technical rock climbing because of its historic significance. It was a landmark for travelers in both directions along the California Trail, Keck said. Also fun: Picking out the shapes you see in the rocks and comparing with family and friends. It’s great for the imagination.

▪ All of the roads in both parks are gravel. Parts of City of Rocks are being turned back in time to produce landscapes reminiscent of what the settlers would have seen while traveling in covered wagons. That work has included burying some power lines underground and removing fences.

▪ June is the most popular month to visit City of Rocks. No. 2 might surprise you: September. About half of visitors list rock climbing as the top draw.

▪ Pinyon pines grow in the area. It’s the only pinyon pine woodland in Idaho and the trees allow five or six species of wildlife to live there that otherwise wouldn’t, Keck said.

For in-depth information on City of Rocks, you can buy booklets at the visitor center in Almo for $5 each.

Admission to City of Rocks is free. Castle Rocks requires a $5 per car entrance fee or an annual passport.

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