If you love rock climbing, you are probably already very familiar with City of Rocks National Reserve. If you are not a rock climber, City of Rocks still has a lot to offer for those who love to explore and hike.

City of Rocks National Reserve welcome sign.
A reserve and a state park. Two for the price of one.

State Park Overview

Rating: 4 out of 5.

City of Rocks is both a national reserve and a state park. The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has been the on-site manager since 1996 and it is located next to Castle Rocks State Park.

The reserve is nationally known as one of the top five rock-climbing destinations in the U.S. and boasts over 700 climbing routes. You will find climbers from all over the world exploring and enjoying City of Rocks.

Rock climber at City of Rocks National Reserve.
I spy with my little eye…a rock climber! They abound at this park.

Pros:

  • Lots and lots of climbing routes
  • Really cool, really unique rock formation
  • Hiking trails of all lengths
  • Open year round

Cons:

  • Hot in the summer with limited tree coverage
  • No cell phone coverage
  • Services in the immediate area are limited

What To Do

  • Climb some rocks. I am not a rock climber, but apparently, City of Rocks is one of the best granite-face climbing sites in the world. And there are over 700 routes!
  • Hit the trails. You can go hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
  • Camp.
  • In the wintertime, the park is a great place to go snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
  • Brush up on your history. City of Rocks was home to the Numic speaking people from the Shoshone and Paiute bands. And you can view the names of California-bound emigrants.
Girl hiking on a rock at City of Rocks in Idaho.
Exploring City of Rocks in Idaho.

Amenities

They have restrooms (no flush toilets, unfortunately) and the usual picnic tables and such. For all of the specifics, check out the parks and rec’s website for City of Rocks National Reserve. You can also visit the National Park Service’s website for City of Rocks National Reserve.

Crowd situation

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Although City of Rocks is busier than its neighbor down the street (Castle Rocks State Park), this is a big park and you will not feel too crowded. But there will be plenty of people at the visitors center and parking lots. The climbing situation may be a whole other ball game and you may have to fight for the good spots. I have no idea.

Unique to City of Rocks National Reserve

City of Rocks was sometimes used by settlers heading to California. In fact, more than 50,000 settlers took this route in 1852. As settlers sometimes do, they carved their initials in the rocks they passed. At City of Rocks, you can still see some of those initials on a rock along the trail.

California settlers' names engraved in the rock at City of Rock.
Names from settlers heading to California.

A little history about City of Rocks National Reserve

It was James F. Wilkens who described this place as “City of Rocks.” He was on his way to California in 1849. Many pioneers wrote of this place in their journals and their names, as well as their wagon ruts, can still be found at the reserve. This was an important landmark on the California Trail.

The rocks themselves are much, much older. Geologists estimate the oldest granite is 2.5+ billion years old. The national reserve was established in 1988. It encompasses 14,407 acres. Interestingly, about a quarter of the reserve is privately owned.

Explore nearby

  • 20 minutes away is the Castle Rocks State Park.
  • Burley, Idaho, is about an hour away. It is your best bet for lodging and restaurants.
  • For limited services and the visitors center, Almo, Idaho, is just 10 minutes away.
Panoramic views at City of Rocks National Reserve.
Take in the unique views all around you.

Our experience at City of Rocks National Reserve

Hit up the visitors center

We first visited the visitors center. The visitors center is located on the southern edge of the tiny town of Almo. It acts as the visitors center for both Castle Rocks State Park and City of Rocks National Reserve. If you are looking for an outfitter to take you climbing, this is a good place to ask. A ranger can also provide trail recommendations if you just want to hike around. Or you can do what we did: grab a map and head out on your own.

Rock climbing at City of Rocks National Reserve

Even if you are not a rock climber, there are plenty of rocks for you to climb (sans the gear). On our first trip to City of Rocks, we climbed all over and around a huge granite boulder. In fact, a “boulder” does not accurately describe the size of the rock we climbed on. This thing was massive! It was also a lot of fun to explore. And the reserve is full of all sorts of rock formations just like it. They are just sitting there, waiting for you to climb up and explore them.

Sitting on a big boulder at the city
Look close and you can spot R.

Warning: please be safe when climbing and exploring. When in doubt, do not climb.

Hiking at City of Rocks National Reserve

On this most recent trip, we parked at the Bath Rock parking lot and headed out on the Creekside Towers Trail. Then we looped back around using the South Creek Circle Creek and Stairways Trails. The views were very cool and we saw very few people. It was a little hot, but there was some shade here and there. If you are planning to hike City of Rocks, be sure to bring some water.

Conclusion

If you enjoy rock climbing and you have never been to City of Rocks National Reserve, go! If you are not a rock climber, you should still visit the reserve. There is a lot to explore and the landscape is so very unique. Plus, you will see the very same rocks formations both the Native Americans and emigrants saw, which makes for a special experience.

Note: we visited City of Rocks National Reserve as part of our Idaho State Parks Challenge. The challenge consists of visiting all of Idaho’s state parks in one year. We made up this challenge to see a bit more of our beautiful state and help alleviate the restlessness caused by Covid-19 travel restrictions. Feel free to join the challenge!

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