Southern Idaho Part II: City of Rocks
A little over an hour to the south of where we were staying at Lake Walcott State Park is City of Rocks National Preserve. City of Rocks is located near the little town of Almo, ID, down close to the border of Utah.
A national preserve is an area with characteristics similar to a national park, but where certain activities not permitted in national parks (such as hunting, trapping, or oil and gas exploration and drilling) are allowed. City of Rocks National Preserve is administered by the National Park Service, but it is managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation under a cooperative agreement.
Granite rocks and spires, some of them over 600 feet high, surround a broad valley at City of Rocks. The photo below is from an overlook near the entrance to the preserve and shows some of the rugged peaks
City of Rocks became a landmark for settlers traveling the California Trail, which runs through the valley. The valley also made an excellent place for wagon trains to spend the night. The entrance to the valley is behind the rocks in the photo below. You can just see the beginning of the valley to the right of the rocks.
The California Trail was used from the early 1840s until the late 1860s. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, use of the overland routes like the California Trail diminished greatly.
During the early years of the California Trail, the Native Americans tolerated and even helped the settlers. After the start of the gold rush in 1849, however, the traffic on the trail increased, and so did the conflict between the emigrants and Indians. The Indians resented the destruction of food sources by the emigrants and their livestock.
As we drove into the valley, we came to the ruins of a house. Settlers began to homestead the City of Rocks area in the late 1800s. This location at the edge of the Great Basin Desert was a harsh environment to begin with; but when droughts hit in the 1920s and 1930s, the wells ran dry and the homesteads were abandoned. The shell of this house, with the date 1905 on the lintel over the door, is all that remains of the original Circle Creek Ranch built by William F. Tracey.
These delicate spires were a little farther along in the valley right next to the trail...
...and right across from Camp Rock where emigrants wrote their names in axle grease.
Registry Rock is a little farther along the valley and contains even more settlers' names. If you look closely, you can see a date of 1843 just to the right of center.
The present-day roads that run through the preserve are unpaved. Fortunately it rained the day before, which kept down the dust; and the roads had dried just enough to not be muddy. In the valley, the preserve road splits into two branches - one that winds up through the peaks and exits the preserve near the northern edge, and one that continues through the valley roughly following the California Trail and exiting the preserve at the southern end.
We first drove the northern fork of the road up into the hills and peaks. Climbing is a popular activity at City of Rocks and there were three climbers on Elephant Rock. If you look very closely, you may be able to see two of them near the top of the rock over on the right side. The third can't be seen because he is in the deep shadow all the way on the right.
In case you can't quite see the climbers in the photo above, here is a telephoto shot of the two that were in the sun.
When we got to the park boundary on the northern branch of the road, we turned around and stopped for lunch with a beautiful view of the rocks above and the valley below. We can't remember the last time we were somewhere that was utterly devoid of sound except for the wind. The solitude and quiet were unbelievable.
From our high vantage point, we could see the valley below where the wagon trains camped.
As we headed back down from the peaks, we stopped for a short walk to Window Arch.
Paul climbed up around the back of the arch for this photo.
We spent a little time roaming around the area where the arch was located enjoying the quiet and the views of the rocks.
The preserve has 67 primitive campsites (tents only), very few of which were being used. The photo below is a campsite within a few hundred feet of the arch.
The Idaho Department of Parks, which manages City of Rocks, also has a state park called Castle Rocks State Park adjacent to City of Rocks. Although we didn't have time to visit Castle Rocks (we concentrated on the history of the California Trail in City of Rocks instead), we did drive through the state park's RV campground on our way into the preserve. The state park RV campground is actually right inside the entrance to the national preserve. The campground appeared to be an excellent facility with widely-spaced sites in a desert setting with sagebrush between the sites. Campground roads and pads are paved. The sites have water and electricity and have a great view of the granite spires from one side of the campground and a beautiful view of ranch land outside the preserve from the other. There were only two or three RVs in the campground.
As we returned to the valley from the upper road, we turned right on the road that more or less follows the California Trail as it exits the preserve at the southern end. Wagons would fan out as they crossed this part of the valley to try to avoid the dust of those ahead of them. They would regroup at the far end at Pinnacle Pass, which is the narrower gap between the two peaks to the left of the photo below.
Pinnacle Pass was very difficult to traverse. In later years, cables were used to help lower the wagons down the far side. In fact, Pinnacle Pass was so difficult, modern-day road builders decided not to build a road through the pass. Instead, they used dynamite to clear a way for the road through the larger space to the right in the photo above, which passes Twin Sisters. Twin Sisters are the two spires to the left of the group of three in the photo below.
The angle of the above photo makes the third spire to the right of Twin Sisters look much larger than it really is. The photo below, which shows Margery walking toward Twin Sisters, is from a different angle and better shows the size relationship of Twin Sisters.
There are several remote, primitive campsites that were not being used at the base of Twin Sisters, and the photo below shows the view from those campsites back toward the valley.
There was a branch of the California Trail that went through Salt Lake City, came up Emigrant Canyon, and re-joined the main trail near the southern exit of the national preserve. Later, there was also a stage stop at the end of Emigrant Canyon where it meets the California Trail. The Oregon Stage Company operated stagecoach service between Boise, ID, and Kelton, UT, through City of Rocks from 1869 to 1883. The photo below shows Twin Sisters from the site of the stage stop at the end of Emigrant Canyon. This was the last view that the emigrants had of the City of Rocks; and many wrote about or sketched what they saw.
City of Rocks not only has interesting scenery, but it has an interesting history. We loved learning about the pioneers who traveled through the area on their way to a new life. We couldn't help but realize what a hardy bunch they were.
The emigrants' wagons, called Prairie Schooners, were loaded with provisions for their trip and with all their earthly possessions. There was no room for passengers. Most of the emigrants walked all the way from St. Louis to California. They faced illness and injury. Along the way, the wagons broke down and got stuck. Animals had to be cared for, fed, and watered. Dust or mud was everywhere. We don't think many people today would make it. We certainly couldn't.
We had entered the preserve from the eastern side through Almo where the roads are paved, at least until you get into the preserve itself. If you follow either branch of the road in the preserve all the way to the end and exit City of Rocks on the western side, you will find yourself on Birch Creek Road, which is gravel. As we prepared to turn onto Birch Creek Road, we had to wait for an 18-wheeler to pass while it was being led to an obscure ranch road by someone in a pick-up. There are people who live in the middle of noWHERE!
We traveled north on Birch Creek Road almost 15 miles before we hit pavement near the town of Oakley. Fortunately, Birch Creek Road is fairly smooth, and we were able to travel at nearly 35 or 40 mph most of the way without even kicking up that much dust. Even after learning about the hardships the pioneers endured as they traveled through the dust and mud, we still couldn't wait to get back onto a paved road even though we had the windows up and the air conditioner humming away.
Back at the motor home, Paul could see a car wash was in our future, but that would be another day. For now, we needed to prepare for our departure the next morning. It was time to start meandering back toward the east.