City of Rocks National Preserve, ID: Rockin’ the California Trail

Continuing the “Out-of-the-Way 2020 Tour,” we headed to City of Rocks National Reserve, a little-known, but super-fascinating, far-southern Idaho destination.

Between 1843 and 1882, a staggering 240,000 emigrants passed through City of Rocks along the California Trail, in search of riches (“there’s gold in them thar hills!”) and a better life.

City of Rocks, with its main drag following the route of this mass migration, is the most intact and authentic setting of the California Trail anywhere in the country.

Families packed relatives, tools, books, family heirlooms, clothes, furniture and everything they could squeeze into their wagons.

It was a rough journey, filled with hunger, thirst, disease, accidents and more.  Peril notwithstanding, the 300-person Indian massacre memorialized on this plaque probably never happened, as historians can find no evidence whatsover of its existence.  Fake News!

Many of the emigrants recorded their names and messages on Camp Rock.

Unlike similar rock-based diaries we’ve seen in places like El Morro, New Mexico, these emigrants recorded their presence using axle grease, instead of candle smoke. 

Many would leave messages for friends or family coming after them, or see prior messages from people they knew who had preceded them through this place … a very slow form of social media!

Arriving here was like reaching nirvana.  It was a place to rest and prepare for the most difficult passage ahead, over the Sierra Nevada mountains.  With stunning landscapes, good water, and grass for their animals to graze, surely many wished to stay forever.

Before heading on, they had to lighten their loads to take the most dangerous part of their trek over the Sierra Nevadas.  Imagine trying to decide what to leave behind!  (whiny children?  domineering mother-in-laws?  that stupid kazoo your husband won’t stop playing?) A few of them couldn’t decide, and so established homesteads whose ruins remain behind in the reserve today.   

What dreams must J.H.H. have had for his family when he erected the touchstone above his door in 1909?

Today, many come for the excellent rock climbing, with over 700 creatively named routes such as Scream Cheese, and Crack of Doom.  Looking up from the road, tiny specks of fit humans are barely visible on the huge rock faces.

If staying on terra firma is more your style, a network of hiking trails winds through the rocks.  

Of course, there’s the obligatory “Fat Man’s Pass,” a staple of every great hiking adventure!

I “see” you Fat Man’s Pass, and “raise” you one Window Rock!  All we need is a Bridal Veil Falls and we’d have the trifecta of most-used names all covered. 

If you don’t want to hike OR climb, you can still appreciate the beauty of this place via an auto tour along the main road ….

… viewing multiple named formations, like Elephant Rock.  Do you see it?

Nope?  Well, don’t feel bad, we didn’t either, at first.

Lemme help you!

The gateway town to City of Rocks is tiny, historic Almo. Tracy General Store is the oldest general store in all of Idaho, since 1894.

Besides a daily hot lunch special (enjoyed by all those tent-camping climbers who are sick of their granola bars and warm beer), it’s also the town post office, with these beautiful antique post office boxes still serving residents today. 

Though City of Rocks has sites for tent camping and just a couple smaller RV sites (25 feet or less), a more developed campground with hookups and reservable sites is just adjacent to the reserve, in Castle Rocks State Park’s Smoky Mountain Campground.

The countryside surrounding Almo is a beautiful, bucolic community of cattle-ranching families.  The 49-mile City of Rocks Back Country Byway highlights the unspoiled rural landscape.

A stroll through the local cemetery proves the rancher pride of the area, with multiple headstones sporting Western appointments and shaped like the great state of Idaho.

PEEK into history with a visit to the “Silent City” of Rocks!

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