Originally published August 2020; Migrated and revised March 2021
Travel date July 2020
Never one to miss a national park, we took a detour to City of Rocks National Reserve on our northbound trip from Salt Lake City Utah to Twin Falls Idaho. City of Rocks is one of Southern Idaho’s top backcountry adventure destinations. It was a fun spot to watch rock climbers, hike a few miles, and learn about the settlers who traveled the California Trail.
Sleeping in a Rest Area
The night before visiting we decided to sleep in a rest area about 40 miles away and once in bed we quickly remembered why we don’t like to sleep in rest areas. The rumble of 18 wheelers throughout the night and the nearby engines running meant for a very poor night of sleep.
The next morning we drove to the City of Rocks National Reserve for the day. It is exactly as it sounds, an area full of massive boulders and rocks surrounded by flat, sandy desert. It is very bizarre.
About City of Rocks
City of Rocks is located at the southern end of the Albion Mountains. Granite pinnacles, fins, and domes dominate the entire park. There are no paved roads in the park.
Between 1842 and 1899, nearly a quarter of a million pioneers traveled the California Trail through the City of Rocks searching for a better life in the West. Visitors today can see the same 60 story tall granite spires that pioneer James F. Wilkens described as a “City of Rocks”. Journal entries, wagon ruts and pioneer inscriptions are the remaining visible proof of the pioneer’s journeys.
Geologists have determined the oldest granite in the park is over 2.5 billion years old. Covering over 14,000 acres, the City of Rock is a significant landmark in the history of the California Trail.
When to visit?
The City of Rocks typically closes in October when the park roads are buried in snow. Snowshoeing and skiing are popular during the winter. Spring, summer, or fall are all good times for a day trip to City of Rocks.
To determine the best way to spend our limited time, we started the day at the visitor center a few miles away in the historic village of Arco. The visitor center serves both the City of Rocks National Reserve and the nearby Castle Rock State Park. City of Rocks has no paved roads so we left Pippi at the small visitor center parking lot and took our car to explore the Reserve.
Castle Rocks State Park
Nearby, Castle Rocks State Park offers similar scenic beauty with more amenities. The state park also offers trails for biking, hiking, and horses, climbing, and shaded picnic areas beside Almo Creek. Admission is $5 per vehicle or free with an annual Idaho State Parks Pass.
History at City of Rocks
Historic California Trail
The City of Rocks is part of the California Trail, which was used by many early settlers. Westbound emigrants often signed their names on the rock walls in axle grease to mark their passing.
One of the attractions is Register Rock and settler signatures are still clearly visible. A ranger told us these were written in wagon axle grease and are somewhat protected from the weather by the natural overhang of the rock above.
Climbing at City of Rocks
As you might guess City of Rocks has world-class rock climbing and the granite-face climbing attracts many rock climbers. With over 700 climbing routes the City of Rocks has ample climbing opportunities but the most popular ones get crowded on weekends.
Hiking at City of Rocks
If you aren’t a climber, the City of Rock has over 22 miles of hiking trails. The trails range from a short walk to all-day backcountry hikes. Between the various options, there are plenty of trails to fill a weekend with hiking.
The walk to Window Arch is an easy 300-foot walk from the campground. The path isn’t clearly marked in some areas but the Arch is close enough we just wandered until we spotted it.
Creekside Towers and Staircase Trail Loop
During the 2-mile Creekside Towers and the Staircase trail loop, we saw an abundance of wildflowers and enjoyed watching the climbers.
Camping at City of Rocks
After a picnic lunch at the trailhead, we explored the City of Rock campgrounds. The campground has 64 standard campsites with awesome views of the surrounding granite rocks. A few were available the day we visited but reservations are recommended. Sites are $14 per night with pit toilets available nearby.
The sites were all unique and some were not accessible for anything larger than a passenger vehicle. A confident driver could easily fit a big rig into the private sites nestled between the rocks. For safety, always scout locations before driving in. We didn’t have any AT&T cell service at the campground.
Summary City of Rocks
Our trip to the City of Rocks was a nice detour in Southern Idaho. We spent the day hiking and watching rock climbers. The 60 story granite spires are impressive but countless pioneers who traversed this rough terrain along the California Trail are even more impressive.