Tom Kelly’s Sunday Drive: Pioneers greeted by a city of rocks |

Tom Kelly’s Sunday Drive: Pioneers greeted by a city of rocks

Tom  Kelly

Standing atop Parking Lot Rock you look down onto a literal city of granite, with rocks sprouting up everywhere from the southern Idaho landscape. In the foreground, roped climbers scale Morning Glory Spire. Beyond is a showcase of geology, with rocks millions (even billions) of years old – textbook examples of Mother Nature at work.

City of Rocks is definitely a road trip, a bit over three hours each way from Park City. But in the days of jam-packed crowds at Arches and Zion, visiting a National Reserve that’s pretty light on crowds is a real joy. It’s a destination where kids will enjoy easy hikes and scrambling up house-sized boulders, all the while learning geology and history.

The landscape was created billions of years ago. The Shoshone tribe and later California-bound pioneers first populated the region, drawn to its uniqueness. From 1843 to 1882, a steady stream of pioneers and their wagons crossed the wide Raft River Valley to the east, from Strevell Pass to Emigrant Canyon. The geologic wonders here caused them to label it the City of Rocks. It served as a vital outpost along the California Trail. Those carrying on to California would use the Twin Sisters rock formation as their sentinel, crossing Pinnacle Pass and westward to their new-sought opportunity.

Mother Nature’s work here captivated natives and travelers for its unique features. The granite formations seemingly popping out of the ground came into being out of two widely spaced periods of time. Most of the spires, what is now called Almo pluton, were formed 28 million years ago. But some came into being 2.5 billion years ago as part of the Green Creek complex – some of the oldest rocks in the world. The side-by-side Twin Sisters showcase examples of each period, now linked together.

But what makes the rock so interesting are the continuing effects nature has in sculpting fascinating features through weather, mass wasting (uplift) and erosion. Kids, your assignment is to learn about joints, tafoni, arches and panholes. It’s a great exercise to put some education into your rock scrambling.

What draws visitors to City of Rocks is the geology. But the real emotion in the park comes as you sit on a rock overlook peering down onto the roadway. This is the actual route of the California Trail. You can visualize wagons crossing the desert floor with pioneers walking alongside, the steel-clad wooden wheels digging ruts into the desert floor. As you look eastward, the wide open expanse of the Idaho prairie gives you a sense of the wonderment the pioneers felt when their route passed through City of Rocks.

To those early pioneers, City of Rocks was a bit like a 19th century land of Oz as their wagons crossed into the unique landscape with spires and oversized boulders sprouting from the landscape. As you stand in front of Camp Rock or Register Rock, your mind is transformed to those days 160 years ago as you see the signatures of pioneers inscribed onto the rock with axle grease. As you look at the blackened letters spelling out their names, your mind senses the essence of their story.

At that point, it’s more than just a story of our ancestors. This is the real thing!

The Details

Overview: Plan on a long day for this one or consider an overnight stay, either camping in the park or staying at the nearby Almo Inn. It’s about a three-hour drive to City of Rocks visitor center in Almo. It’s a few minutes longer traveling in via Malta and Elba, but it’s fully paved. The more direct route off I-15 at Snowville goes via the fascinating ghost town of Naf, mostly on improved gravel roads. Start your adventure at the Visitor Center in Almo.

Fun Stuff: City of Rocks is about rock scrambling, hiking and history. Bring appropriate footwear, sunscreen and plenty of water. Binoculars are nice to watch the climbers on Morning Glory Spire! Read up on geology and plan your trails in advance.

Dining: Hit Bert’s in Brigham City for breakfast on the way up. Almo has a pizza restaurant and a steakhouse.

Fees: There is no fee to visit the National Reserve. And, you can bring dogs on a six-foot leash.

Next Week: Next week it’s back in the Jeep for a fun offroad run high above Midway on the Snake Creek Trail.

About Tom Kelly

A lifelong traveler, Tom Kelly has visited over 100 countries on six continents. But some of his best adventures have been in Utah and the Intermountain West, which he has made his home for 34 years.

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