The City of Rocks National Reserve, in southern Idaho, is rich with history.
This reserve preserves the most intact and authentic section of the California Wagon Train Trail, an offshoot of the Oregon Trail.
Between 1843 and 1882, a mass migration of more than 200,000 people headed west through this area. The first emigrants sought land. In 1848, the discovery of gold in California enticed thousands more to go West in search of riches.
James Wilkins was among the first wagon-train pioneers to fix the name City of Rocks to what looked like “a dismantled, rock-built city of the Stone Age.”
In 1849, Wilkins wrote: “We encamped at the city of the rocks, a noted place from the granite rocks rising abruptly out of the ground. They are a romantic valley clustered together, which gives them the appearance of a city.”
If you look carefully, you’ll see emigrant signatures on the rocks. You can also see their actual wagon ruts. Here’s where hoofprints meet history.
We began our trip to the City of Rocks with a stop at the visitor center, located outside the small town of Almo. The center, a rich resource for park information, is open seven days per week, from May 1 to October 1. We picked up trail maps and general information from the friendly staff.
We were traveling with our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Nate and Cowboy, so we were happy to see that there are two horse camps at the City of Rocks.
One is Smoky Mountain Equine Campground, near the park entrance, with six campsites; each one has a 12-by-12-foot horse pen. Here, we saw two people with one horse each sharing a campsite and pen. Cramming two horses into a pen that’s barely big enough for one isn’t something most horsemen would do.
This overcrowding problem was pointed out to management. Instead of adding an additional pen to each campsite, camp managers constructed a large, common corral for all the extra horses. This so-called overcrowding “solution” ignores the fact that horses who don’t know each other engage in dominance battles and food fights, and may get injured when thrown together. We hope this camp is a work in progress.
The second horse camp is at the southern end of the reserve.
Smoky Mountain Ride
Before we headed to the second camp, we went on a nine-mile ride from the Smoky Mountain Trailhead near the first equine camp
A soft-dirt trail from the trailhead began a gentle climb through pinyon pines and fragrant junipers. This fun zigzag trail had variegated colors on either side. On our right was a dying stream filled with bright greenery but almost no water.
After a mile or so, we arrived at a junction, where a sign pointed the way to the stone remains of the notable Tracy Homestead (built in 1901 by William E. Tracy) a half-mile ahead.
Eagerly, we rode on. But when we reached the homestead, we realized we’d already seen it from the road. We gazed at the ruins a second time and headed back to the trail junction.
At the junction, we turned left and did a gentle elevation gain up Smoky Mountain Connector. This portion of the ride was characterized by huge boulders and rugged pine trees.
We discovered a little alcove, where we sat and enjoyed avocado-cheese sandwiches and hot coffee. As we sipped our coffee, we appreciated our surroundings. We were breathing clean, crisp air under a sapphire sky. Plants and rocks were artistically strewn about, creating a natural masterpiece. How lucky we were!
Continuing on, we came to the Circle Creek Overlook parking lot. From here, take the two-track trail west for about a quarter mile until you see a turnoff for the Geo Watt Trail. This gorgeous trail heads north toward the mountains, then wanders west to meander alongside them.
Along the Geo Watt Trail Loop, you’ll see amazing rocks in twisted shapes and bizarre formations. We saw what looked to be a giant Neanderthal man; near him were two proud eagles perched side-by-side. It’s easy to understand how this rich landscape of rock formations gave birth to ancient stories.
After hitting the North Fork Circle Creek Trail we could have made our loop larger by heading toward Stripe Rock but it was spitting rain, and we were both without raingear, so instead we turned left, completing a smaller loop.
Heading back, we enjoyed a soft, gentle decline all the way to the trailhead parking lot. We did a slow, steady gait and arrived back at the trailer happy and only slightly damp.
The South End
We trailered down to the southern end of the reserve, where the other horse camp is located. This camp has room for several trailers, plus a large common corral, fire ring, and picnic table. There’s also a water tap, but it wasn’t functioning.
We noticed on the park map that the California Trail ran through the small valley about a quarter mile below our camp. Armed with our camera, we walked into the valley and discovered fantastic trail ruts up to five feet deep in some places.
We were met by our friends, Mark and Lisa Holzer, who dropped by to camp and ride with us for a few days. The evening the Holzers arrived, we went on a short ride with them from camp. Mark rode his trusty 17-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse, Ranger; Lisa rode her faithful 10-year-old Tennessee Walker, Hawkeye. We rode down to the junction of the California and Salt Lake Alternate Wagon Train Trails.
The Big Loop
The next day, Mark and Lisa were eager to take us on what they called “the big loop.” This ride had it all: rock formations; water; aspen meadows; gaiting trails; and magnificent vistas.
To get to this ride, we trailered to a parking space by Register Rock, the junction of Emery Canyon Rd. and the City of Rocks Rd.
We rode west a short distance to Elephant Rock, then went through a gate to an old two-track trail, still headed west. Eventually, we got to a single trail going north.
Sometime later, we rode into a parking lot near the Breadloaves rock formations, where we watched the rock climbers in awe. The City of Rocks is internationally renowned for its rock-climbing opportunities.
After leaving the Breadloaves, we took a trail north toward Indian Grove Spring. Along this route are intricate rock formations. We were delighted with views of the valley below, populated with reclining boulders that captured our imaginations and put them into overdrive. Mark pointed out rocks that he’d aptly named for their shapes, such as frog rock, tooth rock, and whale rock. Indian Grove Spring, located on a side trail, is an idyllic lunch spot.
Our return trip took us downhill through aspens and boulders along the North Fork Circle Creek and Box Top trails. Some trail sections here are ideal for gaiting. Our smooth horses glided down the trail past rocks, boulders, and trees “as smooth as skateboards,” as Mark remarked.
Castle Rock State Park
Castle Rock State Park is conveniently located next door to the City of Rocks. Here, you can rent a cabin called The Lodge, and your horse can stay in a nice corral. If you’d rather ride just for the day, you may park your rig in a nearby parking lot.
Rain and snow pelted down on us at Castle Rock, so we didn’t get to ride. We’d love to come back someday, as we learned that the park offers a six-mile loop around majestic granite outcroppings. Shady green cedars and wildflower meadows are highlighted by quaking aspen. Ancient pictographs are scattered around granite boulders.
Indian Grove Outfitters
If you don’t have your own horse and want to go on a day ride, or if you’d like to go on an affordable pack trip, look into Indian Grove Outfitters. This experiencedoutfit will take you on quality rides into the City of Rocks, Castle Rock State Park, and the nearby Sawtooth National Forest.
A guided day ride or pack trip is an excellent way to immerse yourself into the wilderness of the City of Rocks.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at email@example.com.