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This City Rocks!
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Thursday, September 23, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Foreign accents reverberate through the City of Rocks.

On one wall is an Austrian, muttering in guttural tones as he works his way up a sloping crack in the rock where he clips his safety rope into a bolt left in the rock from previous climbers.

On another is an Italian climber, dousing his sweaty fingers in a chalk bag dangling from his harness before reaching for a new finger hold. On the ground a few rocks away, adjusting her belt full of tapers and nuts, is a woman from France.

Granted, City of Rocks looks more like Bedrock City from “The Flintstones” than New York, with its skyscrapers of tinted glass.

Yet it sports a cosmopolitan air that belies the rugged isolation of this site, which was made a national reserve in 1988.

Yes, there are no baguette carts, espresso bars or pizzerias. There aren’t even any full-time inhabitants—unless you count the sand lizards and mule deer.

Yet, more than 120,000 visitors come each year from all over the world to walk the winding corridors of this city, which was designed by nature rather than architects or engineers.

It is especially popular among climbers who come here to test their skills on some 700 climbing routes that ascend twisted spires of granite rising like skyscrapers as high as 62 stories above a vast plain 15 miles southeast of Oakley.

“It’s world class climbing just 3 ½ hours from home,” said Eric Leidecker, a climbing guide from Hailey.

City of the Rocks was a welcome sight for a quarter-million pioneers traveling the often monotonous California Trail between 1843 and 1863.

They couldn’t resist dubbing the gray rocks carved into bizarre shapes by wind and rain with such names as the Twin Sisters, Elephant Rock and Bath Rock.

Rock climbers  discovered the area a century later and christened rocks and routes with other intriguing names, such as Kaiser’s Helmet, Inspiration or Perspiration, Cows Can’t Climb Mountains, King on the Throne, Clamshell, Baked Beings from Hell, Buzzard Perch, Bloody Fingers Wall, Scar Tissue and Cannibal’s Corner.

One rock climbing afficionado from Hailey recalls the first time he visited City of the Rocks. After pitching his tent in the dark, he crawled out of it the next morning to be “blown away.”

“I thought it was like a fantasy land. It’s one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen,” he said. “What makes the area so magical for me is the rocks. City of Rocks is bigger than you are, it’s larger than life. It puts you in your place.”

Some of the rocks in this city are considered among the oldest in North America. They date back 2.5 billion years, according to some calculations.

Rock climbers say the granite with its varnish-like covering is “solid and immaculate,” offering a lot of variety from boulder climbing and “super easy” wall climbs for rank beginners to climbs that challenge even the experts.

“It’s rare to find granite as featured as it is. There are a lot of good holes for your climb,” according to Pete Heekin, the former owner of Lost River Sports. “There’s crack climbing and there are bolt-protected sports climbs. It’s beautiful, very aesthetic climbing.”

City of the Rocks is also unique in that it’s one of the few world-class climbing sites where you can camp among the rocks. Some campsites are single and double sites shaded by pinyon pine and surrounded by boulders that give the camper a feeling of being all alone. Others are more conventional loops offering spaces for several RVs and tents.

Since City of the Rocks sits between 5,200 and 8,867 feet in elevation, cold and snow can hamper climbs during winter. Occasionally, 100-degree temperatures can bake climbers in mid-summer.

But climbers do climb from April through October, starting out and ending at Castle Rocks State Park, a lower-elevation area on the east side of City of the Rocks.

In addition to climbing, history buffs can scout out names painted on Camp Rock and others with axle grease by 49ers’, members of the Mormon Battalion and other pioneers. And they can gaze in wonder at the Twin Sisters, which marked the intersection of the California and Salt Lake Alternate trails.

Bird watchers and nature lovers will find 163 bird species, 450 plant species and numerous mammals, reptiles and amphibians. There are also a plethora of hiking trails winding through the rocks and mountain mahogany, as well as horse riding and mountain biking along the Tea Kettle trail.

“I’d go down there every weekend if I could,” said one climber. “It’s just amazing how this obscure little place in Idaho offers so much—to people from all over the world.”

 

CITY OF ROCKS EXPANDS

 

The National Park Service acquired 22 additional acres of land within the City of Rocks National Preserve this summer. The Gibson property is located along the City of Rocks Backcountry Byway between Register Rock and Elephant Rock. It includes the granite features known as the Dungeon, Crystal Cow, and Electric Avenue.

Set up against the Albion Mountains, some of the granite in City of Rocks goes back more than 2 billion years, earning the honor of some of the oldest rock in the western United States. The National Preserve was created in November 1988 and includes 3,745  acres of private property, 10,022 acres of federal lands and 640 acres of state park.

 If you go…

City of the Rocks is located south of Burley.

You can get there via a gravel road accessible to pedestrian cars from Oakley.

Or, take the Declo exit, No. 216, off Interstate 84 east of Burley and follow Highway 77.  The highway winds through Albion and Almo, which features the oldest continuously operated general store in Idaho. Gasoline and food are available in Almo.

Admission to City of Rocks is free. There is a fee for Castle Rocks State Park.

There are 64 designated standard campsites in City of the Rocks and three group sites with grills, fire rings and picnic tables in the 14,000-acre reserve. Outhouses are spread throughout the reserve, as well.

A small visitor center in Almo has maps and an 8-minute video on the site. It’s  open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily during peak season and Tuesdays through Saturdays the rest of the year.

Information: 824-5519 or click on the City of Rocks website at www.nps.gov/ciro

 

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