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Exploring Idaho's Silent City

Scenic splendor awaits at the City of Rocks National Reserve

Published in the September 2022 Issue Published online: Sep 13, 2022 Road Trips Steve Smede
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TIRED OF THE HUSTLE AND BUSTLE of our thriving little metropolis? Idaho Falls may not have the chaotic congestion of SLC or Boise, but it still behooves us all to delve into nature’s quiet corners when possible, especially in early autumn. One of the region’s most alluring gems is the world-famous City of Rocks National Reserve, located 160 miles southwest near the Idaho-Utah border.

Dubbed the “Silent City” by wayward travelers on the California trail, it’s a sight to behold for breathtaking landscape photography. It also serves as a recreational hotspot for adventurers of all stripes.

Formations

According to the National Parks Service, the City of Rocks’ curious topography was born from an extension of the earth’s crust and erosion of the exposed granite bedrock. The resulting geologic oddities are as intriguing as their component names imply:

• Exfoliation Joints: long fractures that control the shape and distribution of the spires
• Tafoni: holes and depressions that form on the undersides of rock masses
• Arches: elongated outcrops found mostly in the central part of the reserve
• Panholes: circular depressions found on flat or gently sloping rock
• Intrusions: magma that slowly squeezes into any cracks or spaces it can find
• Xenoliths: rocks that get enveloped in larger rocks during the larger rocks’ development
• Grus: crumbled granite sand formed by physical weathering

Most of the otherworldly granite spires are composed of 28-million-year-old rock, but some of the reserve’s formations are much older, even by geologic standards. Some of it is estimated to be up to 2.5 billion years old, which would make it some of the oldest rock in the western United States.

For all its grandeur, the property is actually pretty modest in size at 14,400 acres. Over the years, however, it has steadily grown. Last summer, for example, NPS acquired an additional 22 acres located along the City of Rocks Backcountry Byway between Register Rock and Elephant Rock.

Meet the Locals

Beyond the formations, the area is also known for its biodiversity.

According to the NPS, mammals frequenting the 14,400-acre property include mule deer, mountain cottontails, blacktail jack rabbits, yellow-bellied marmots and chipmunks. Less likely to be seen are mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, moose and elk. Also be on the lookout for fence lizards, rattlesnakes and any of 180- plus bird species that have been spotted here. Then of course there are the twolegged critters.

Native American settlements in the area go back thousands of years, made up mostly of mobile hunter-gatherer bands of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. (If time allows, be sure to check out the pictographs on display at the nearby Castle Rocks State Park.) The trails they made around and through the area were later used by westbound emigrants–some of whom etched their names on the rocks where they camped.

In the early 1900s, some of those passersby tried planting roots in the area–literally. Dry land farming was a bust, thanks to subpar soils and scarcity of water. To this day, however, the surrounding lands are used as open range for cattle and sheep. By the 1960s, the property was already catching the attention of tourists. Within a decade, it had become especially popular with rock climbers. By the late 1980s it became obvious that management would be needed to help protect its historical sites and recreational resources. In 1988, Congress designated City of Rocks as a national reserve.

Auto Travel Tips

Once you’re armed with a decent amount of literature, fun facts and backstory, what’s the best way to experience this amazing lost world? Options abound. If you’re mobility-challenged like Yours Truly, the trip is still worth the time and expense.

Once into the reserve, you’ll see a turnoff to the Circle Creek Overlook, which can offer some amazing views all the way to the Bear River Mountains. Further along, consider a quick stop at Camp Rock or Register Rock to see the signatures left by early trail users from the mid 1800s.

As you continue along the City of Rocks Road, chances are good you’ll spot climbers on Elephant Rock, Bath Rock and at the Morning Glory Spire viewpoint. For the perfect picnic spot, NPS suggests pulling over at the Bread Loaves monolith at the Emery Pass Picnic Area.

Walking the Rocks

Want to hoof it? The reserve offers trails from short and easy to long and strenuous, depending on your abilities and goals.

The shortest and easiest is really just a 250-foot walk up to the Window Arch. You can also have an easy time of it with the quarter-mile Bath Rock Trail, which loops around its namesake rock formation. According to the NPS City of Rocks literature: “Adventurous visitors can climb up the backside of Bath Rock where handles are affixed along the steepest section of the climb. Legend has it that a bath in the ‘tub’ at the top of the rock before sunrise will restore youth to the old.”

On the other end of the spectrum are challenging treks like the 5.8-mile City of Rocks Loop. A favorite of local rangers, the remote hike takes you deep into a rockscape of seldom-seen formations and epic views. It’s unapologetically narrow, steep and flanked by uneven terrain, but by all accounts, it’s the best way to see the city in all its backcountry glory. Depending on your elevation, average high temperatures in September hover around a balmy 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Clear skies and calm conditions are also typical.

Scaling to New Heights

If there’s one group of people who truly love the City of Rocks, it’s the international community of rock climbers. The fascination with City of Rocks grew in lockstep with the sport itself, beginning with the Steinfell Club in the early 1960s.

According to the NPS, “The properties of the reserve’s granite rock formations have made City of Rocks a mecca internationally renowned among climbers. There are over 600 routes here, both traditional and sport. Climbs vary from 30-600 feet, rating from the relatively easy 5.6 to the extremely difficult 5.14.”

Climbing guidebooks to both City of Rocks and Castle Rocks are available at the visitor center.

“Climbing is managed, and a permit is required before placing permanent anchors,” NPS literature states. “Otherwise, visitors are free to climb established routes, or just scramble around. Be aware of private lands within the Reserve as well as rock closures along the California Trail. Some rocks and routes are closed seasonally for nesting raptors.”

City of Rocks at a Glance

Designation: 
U.S. National Reserve
Location: 
Near Almo in Cassia County
Travel Distance: 
158 miles from Idaho Falls
Travel Time: 
2 hours, 23 minutes Size: 14,400 acres
Entrance Fee:
 None Phone: 208-824-5901

For more information, including permit information on campsites, rock climbing and horseback riding, visit the City of Rocks webpage at www.nps.gov. You can also reach the visitor’s center by phone at 208-824-5901.
Source Material: National Park Service

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