Climbing hotspots are sometimes found in the most unlikely places.
Among the monotony of grassy hills and grazing cattle just north of the Utah-Idaho border, sitting on the edge of the small town of Almo, sits City of Rocks.
City of Rocks National Reserve is part of the California Trail and has a rich history as a landmark for emigrants heading west on wagons. There are several historical sites within the Reserve, such as Camp Rock and Register Rock, which feature signatures scribed in axle grease from emigrants heading to California in the mid 1800s.
Besides its historical significance, City of Rocks is also one of the rock climbing meccas of the western United States. There are hundreds of climbing routes within the National Reserve, and whether you climb boulders, trad, sport, or even aid, there are dozens of routes suitable for climbers of any ability level.
The rock itself is predominately a form of Granite called Almo Pluton. It’s mostly very good quality, and features plenty of cracks, with small to large dishes, pockets, and horns that make for some excellent varied climbing, from slab to vertical and overhanging terrain.
Fun fact: Some of the granite spires in City of Rocks are part of the Green Creek Complex, the most westward exposure of Archean basement rocks in North America which, at 2.5 billion years old, contains some of the oldest rock in the US.
The approaches to crags in City of Rocks vary from five seconds to about an hour. Most of the trails are very well maintained and marked at the junctions. If you like to wear sandals or shorts on your approaches, keep an eye on the ground: it’s cactus country, and it’s easy to brush your foot against one if you’re not paying attention.
City of Rocks is known for its ‘classic’ ratings. The routes aren’t sandbagged, but expect full-value ratings that you’ll need to work for. The bulk of the routes in the Reserve are in the 5.10 to 5.11 range. If you’re just getting into climbing, though, don’t let the ratings dissuade you; there are plenty of moderate routes in the 5.5 to 5.7 range that provide an excellent intro to climbing.
There’s plenty of camping in the National Reserve and in the surrounding areas. Obviously, if you’re alright with paying for camping (about $12/night), you can’t beat camping in City of Rocks. Almost all of the campsites are either right next to climbing areas, or right next to a trailhead to the climbing areas. There are plenty of bathrooms, trash cans, and even potable water at the main Bath Rock area.
It’s pretty easy to roll right into the Reserve and snag an awesome campsite among the boulders early and late in the season, but during the peak summer climbing season (late May-September), it is highly recommended to make a reservation prior to your visit to the City. In the busy season, walk-in campers may only pay for one night at a time, and if you find an open site, it’s very possible that you will get booted out if it gets reserved online. Luckily though, the rangers at City of Rocks are incredibly friendly and usually place a note on the Bath Rock message board announcing which campsites are first-come first-served on the weekends.
To Get There: From Elba-Almo Road, turn west onto City of Rocks Road, and continue until you pass Camp and Register Rocks. Take the right fork toward large rocks and campsites.
If you’re more of the RV than tent type, Smokey Mountain Campground is right outside of the City, and it has all of the amenities you RV’ers love: Power, paved and level RV pads, a pump-out, and showers!
To Get There: From Elba-Almo Road, turn west onto City of Rocks Road. Shortly after you turn, take a left at the sign for Smokey Mountain Campground. The campground will be on your left, and the Equestrian Trailhead will be on your right.
Free campers rejoice! There’s BLM land about two miles away from City of Rocks, where free camping is permitted, as long you respect the land and Leave No Trace.
To Get There: Head south down Elba-Almo Road, past the turn off for City of Rocks, and continue on as it turns from pavement to dirt. About two miles down, you’ll cross a cattle guard on the road, and immediately turn right.
A climber on top of Bath Rock in City of Rocks. There is a rappel anchor on the west facing side of the rock, as well as a walk-off made possible by via-ferrata-style rebar steps placed in the rock.
Pick up a copy of “City of Rocks Idaho – A Climber’s Guide” by Dave Bingham, and be sure to download and install the City of Rocks route guide on the Mountain Project app. The book provides basic maps of the approaches, and basic beta about the routes. However, there are no gear recommendations, route lengths, detailed approach guides, etc., so it’s worth it to supplement your guidebook with the app.
You may get cell service in the town of Almo, but you won’t in City of Rocks. Be sure to get all of your information downloaded before heading up there.
Bring your typical camping gear, and don’t forget a warm layer and rain shell. City of Rocks can receive the typical Rocky Mountain summertime thunderstorms, and even if it’s in the nineties during the day, once the sun goes down it can get pretty cold up there at around 6,000ft.
Since trad climbs outnumber sport routes at the City, it’s best to bring a rack. A standard double rack will work very well on most routes, and be sure to bring slings for natural pro on horns and other features. I also find that a lot of the routes are easily sewn up with passive pro like nuts and hexes, so there isn’t a huge need to be racked to the teeth with cams.
Bolt only when necessary is the name of game at City of Rocks, so you’ll come across many mixed-protection routes that only have 1-3 bolts over the whole pitch – the lack of bolts means that there is opportunity for natural or removable protection. On these routes, I find that a little rack of small cams and a set of nuts usually does a great job of making the runouts between bolts safe.
Adhering to the bolt-only-when-necessary policy, many routes also don’t have fixed top anchors. This doesn’t mean if you climb the route you’re stuck at the top though – if the route doesn’t have anchors, there are either rappel anchors somewhere along the top, or there is a relatively safe walk-off. I say relatively safe, because many of them are steep 4th class down climbs. If you’re not comfortable down climbing, stick to the routes that have anchors; they are plentiful.
Although many routes only have a couple of bolts over the whole pitch, there are still many completely bolted and very fun sport climbs. A lot of them are quite long, so bring plenty of quickdraws (12-18 draws for a group would be a good bet).
Speaking of long climbs, a 60-meter rope will work on a lot, but not all of the routes; It’s best to bring a 70-meter rope when headed to the City.
Besides sport and trad climbs, there are also plenty of boulders to test yourself on, so don’t forget the crash pads.
Because of the sheer volume of rocks in the City, you could climb there for months and barely scratch the surface. There is, however, another climbing area a couple miles up Elba-Almo Rd. called Castle Rocks, within Castle Rocks State Park. There’s a $5 day-use fee for non-Idahoans, but it’s another beautiful area full of fun routes that I definitely recommend checking out.