BY REBECCA PALMER
ALMO, Idaho — Not only does Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve offer some of the best granite rock climbing routes in the western hemisphere, it also provides some of the finest drive-in and short walk-in camping spots in the region.
Large boulders surround many of the sites, providing shade, privacy and intimacy despite the fact that there are more than 64 sites on the reserve. But that’s not the best part. The vast majority of sites have a magnificent valley view of the reserve just yards away.
Do not miss the chance to stumble from your tent just as the sun rises to soak in the spectacular views. Bring binoculars.
The City of Rocks national reserve is in southwest Idaho, west of Malta and near the small towns of Almo and Elba, which were settled by Mormon pioneers around 1860. The area economy relies primarily on agriculture, but tourists probably double or triple the number of full-time residents during the height of climbing season.
Some locals tell visitors that there’s no good time to come, because it’s always hot and windy. But many of them are world-class athletes, the authors of climbing books and sought-after teachers, so they probably just want the craggy city all to themselves.
In reality, the people in this out-of-the-way place are friendly, and will talk to visitors readily, often over homemade pizza and a vast selection of artisan beers at Rock City pizzeria and general store. Shopkeepers and climbers also help with navigating, climbing techniques and identifying wildlife.
The best time to visit is in the spring or fall, because temperatures in July and August reach the high 90s almost daily. However, camping during the prime season will mean big crowds, and you will have to reserve a campsite ahead of time online at nps.gov/ciro/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm.
Biking, hiking and horse riding are accessible for almost anyone at City of Rocks, but its most celebrated activity is rock climbing. The reserve is filled with boulders, cliffs and oddly shaped rocks that were pushed to the surface through the earth’s crust during two eras С28 million years ago and 2.5 billion years ago.
The result is like a vast playground for baby giants, who might have left their rocky toys lying out after a playdate. It’s filled in with fields of sagebrush, hundreds of wildflower species and pinion juniper. Turkey vultures soar among the cliffs, hunting a plentiful population of voles and lizards.
In all, there are more than 750 climbing routes in City of Rocks and nearby Castle Rocks State Park. Climbers of nearly any interest and ability level will have plenty to do: there are routes for bouldering, which means short but very difficult routes that are about 15 feet high Р no ropes; sport climbing, which means climbing up to hundreds of feet up a cliff while securing a specialized rope to bolts drilled into the rock; and trad or traditional climbing, which uses equipment such as nuts, cams, and hex nuts that don’t leave scars or marks on the mountain but that climbers have to place themselves on each ascent.
The granite makes for a lot of traction during climbing, and that makes finding proper footholds all the more important as you ascend. It’s easy to stay safe, as many routes are well traveled and securing yourself to the wall is fairly easy.
If you want extra help, you can enroll in private climbing camps or guided tours. If you climb in Castle Rocks, a roaming ranger will be on hand to ensure safety.
When you reach the top of your climb, you will get more than a sense of accomplishment С you will get spectacular view of the rocky city in all its geologic peculiarity.
If you plan to climb, bring all your own equipment, including at least two ropes. You can find a spare carabiner or two in town, but the nearest full-fledged gear shop is in Burley, about 45 miles north.
City of Rocks is an often-overlooked natural resource that’s just two-and-a-half hours from south Davis County. Visiting makes for a great weekend getaway, but to ensure a camping spot during the upcoming fall rush, plan now.