Rock(s) of Ages

Castle Rocks State Park and City of Rocks National Reserve

Ash Sanders Sep 1, 2017

There’s something strange in south-central Idaho. In a sweet spot of land where the Great Basin meets the Snake River plain and the Columbia River watershed bumps up against the limits of the Rockies, a city of stone climbs toward the sky.

The stone is some of the oldest west of the Mississippi River, but the “city” forged from it is modern. A slab of granite shaped like a general store sits on one side of the road. On the other, an earthen cathedral towers next to a capitol dome. But the people milling about this “city” aren’t grocery shopping or worshipping or lobbying their representatives.

They’re lacing up hiking boots and unpacking cameras; they’re hanging from rocks 600 feet in the air. They’re here to explore the aptly named City of Rocks National Reserve and neighboring Castle Rocks State Park, a 14,407-acre fantasia of granite spires, babbling creeks and prowling wildlife that attracts new climbers, hikers, photographers and fishermen every year.

A Long History of Visitors

They aren’t the first visitors to the area. Before the park was a park, a quarter-million pioneers passed through this natural metropolis on their way to Utah or California. They exclaimed about the “silent city” in their journals and painted their names in axle grease on the rocks as proof of their journey.

Before that, the Shoshone-Bannock people came to hunt mule deer, visit sacred sites and collect pine nuts — a practice they continue today. In between, there were explorers, fur trappers, scientists and geologists, all gravitating toward the area’s unique landscape, wildlife and history.

Wallace Keck, who jointly manages City of Rocks and Castle Rocks, speaks about the park’s allure in an almost mystical way. “The atmosphere of this place is very special,” he says. “There’s something about the landscape that speaks to all generations and all peoples.”

If that’s true, then the land is speaking louder than ever: Over Memorial Day weekend, the park was at capacity, humming with hikers looking for remote vistas and climbers planning their skyward ascents. Elsewhere, geologists puzzled over ancient rock, and climate scientists collected plants and monitored animals, hoping that the unique assemblage of flora and fauna would help them understand the planet’s future.

But for all that bustle, it is still quiet. In the morning, Keck says, “The birds are singing, the grass is green and the creek’s flowing.” At sunset, all is quietness and hush. It’s like Yosemite, Keck says, without the pressing crowds.

Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!

If you’re heading to City of Rocks, you might need two bucket lists. There’s just that much to do. First off, there’s climbing. The area boasts more than 700 granite routes, many of them multi-pitch climbs that rear hundreds of feet off the valley floor. And you don’t have to be an expert, either. The park runs a Climbing Experience Program that introduces people to the land and basics of the sport, and local guides are available for those who want to up their game.

Don’t enjoy defying gravity? Keck can tick off a doozy of other attractions for your bucket list that will please everyone from cliff-scaling adrenaline junkies to budding history buffs.

Make Like a Pioneer

Sometimes it’s good to get off the beaten path, but in this case, it’s better to be on it. Take the path more traveled by retracing the great migration of 19th-century pioneers traveling from their homes in the East to present-day California. Over six miles of the California Trail is preserved in the park, as well as signatures, sketches and diary excerpts of the travelers.

Follow the deep ruts left by thousands of homesteaders, gold-rushers and adventure-seekers who altered the course of their own lives and the course of history. Learn about the fate of the Shoshone-Bannock people who still live in the area and whose perspective of the migration will soon be included in the exhibit. If you finish but haven’t had your fill of educational trails, dig into the natural history of the area on the park’s self-guided geology tour and decode the enigma of the rocks around you.

Take a Picture (It Lasts Longer)

You don’t have to work for National Geographic to snap some seriously good shots. Just sign up for one of the park’s photographic safaris and let an expert do the legwork. You’ll get to explore secluded nooks and crannies, eye some seldom-seen wildlife and bask in spring or fall foliage. Your friends, posterity and Instagram followers will thank you.

Get Woodsy (and Pondsy)

Head over to Castle Rocks, where you can drop a line into the well-stocked trout pond and hope for a nibble. When you’re done casting about, perfect your other outdoorsy arts by walking the one-mile archery trail where you can practice your aim on 19 model animal targets, including a large 3-D moose. Congratulations! You’re one step closer to surviving in the wild.

Head to the Hills

At City of Rocks, there’s a hike for every ability, from creek-side meanders to calf-busting climbs. If you’re looking for an easy amble, try the Creekside Towers trail, which wanders between granite pinnacles and pinyon pines and features a springtime waterfall, hidden windows and arches.

In Castle Rocks, you can walk up to Eagle Rock Grove following a footpath along a creek shaded by sleepy cottonwoods. Follow that up with a short hike to Indian pictographs at Stine’s Creek picnic area, then walk around Castle Rock itself — a giant granite monolith that is always studded with climbers.

If you’re up for a longer hike, take the North Fork trail (in City of Rocks) on a six-mile jog to Indian Grove and down to Circle Creek overlook. Set in one of the most remote and scenic areas of the park, this hike features babbling creeks, sprays of wildflowers and abundant wildlife.

Get Some R&R

Catch some zzz’s at one of the park’s many sleeping sites. Nestle up at the cozy Castle Rock Lodge or rustic bunkhouse, hit the hay in one of 60-plus developed campsites, or glamp in a yurt.

Head to Almo, the nearby cattle ranching community turned gateway-to-the-park, and soak in the developed Durfee Hot Springs. Spend the night at the western-style Almo Inn where you can treat yourself to a hot meal of steak and potatoes. Or head to Rock City Mercantile for piping hot pizza with the largest beer selection in Southern Idaho. For some old-time fun, visit Tracy’s, the oldest continually operating mercantile in Idaho.

Whatever you do, stay awhile! Keck recommends at least a day — or if you’re like him, 18 years. Either way, it won’t be long enough, and you’ll just have to come back.

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