City of Rocks and Castle Rocks

Come to City of Rocks to get away from any kind of “city” feel. Quality climbing, trail running, and mountain biking are some of the attractions. There’s no entertainment other than what you (and perhaps your campsite neighbors) bring with you. Revel in the lack of cell phone service while enjoying the campsites nestled among the boulders.

Location

The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 1
Just outside of Almo, ID in the City of Rocks National Reserve.
Note: There’s a State Park (Castle Rocks) right next to the National Reserve (City of Rocks). Both are actually managed by the State (the only National Reserve to be handled by the state). So if there’s a federal government shutdown, you can still climb and camp in most areas!

Day Use Fees

City of Rocks = Free
Castle Rocks = $5 per day per vehicle

Climbing Style

A lot of this area was developed in the early days by climbing pioneers like Jeff Lowe. The grades are on par for routes done 20+ years ago (stiff).

The ethics were: bolt only when necessary. You will never find a bolted crack in this park. It is not uncommon to find routes with 1-3 bolts, leaving many of these routes much safer when supplemented by nuts and cams.

The 4 star routes can be UBER crowded on weekends. At noon in September we walked by a 4 star 5.7 multi-pitch and saw 10 people in line for the route. The only time we didn’t see the Elephant Rock parking lot completely full was when it was snowing, and then it was half full.

Gear

Trad routes handily outnumber sport climbs. A standard double rack ensures you can climb whatever you want but a single rack is sufficient for most climbs. Although there are a bunch of sport routes (many new and popular multi-pitch routes with 12-15 bolts per pitch), it would be very helpful to bring a trad rack to subsidize gear on the lesser bolted climbs as many routes are mixed trad/bolts.

Guidebooks

2016 Guidebook (color, 312 pages – includes City of Rocks & Castle Rocks):
City Of Rocks New Guidebook
Earlier Guidebooks:
The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 2The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 3     The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 4The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 5

Dave Bigham’s classic City of Rocks or Castle Rocks guidebooks were the books to get. (The competition, “All of Idaho” type books hold little value). Dave’s descriptions are usually quite helpful. His star ratings definitely reflected our experience. Only downside: it can be challenging to decipher trad vs sport vs sprad routes. Buy the guidebook locally: In Almo at the Visitor’s Center, Rock City, or Tracy’s. 

You can also find City of Rocks climb information via the Rakkup app.

Update: The 2016 Dave Bigham guidebook version will be out mid-Sept, 2016. It will definitely be available at the Visitor’s Center and will likely be available at Rock City and Tracy’s as well. You can also order online directly from the publisher.

When to go

In-Season May-September
Off-season October-April.

The Rangers tell me that Oct-Nov are usually some of the nicest times of the season as it’s not too hot to climb and the sun still warms you. Yet, when we arrived, they had been having a “particularly unusual year” and it was quite chilly in late Sept (it snowed on us). We did get some great climbing in before and after the snow.

The guidebook does suggest some shady areas assuming you’ll be climbing in the summer and want them. If it’s particularly windy, Castle Rocks is the best bet. We also found ourselves hidden from the wind while climbing at Transformer Wall in City of Rocks.

Water

There’s a free pump at the Visitors Center (outside, near the toilets). The water is nearly always on unless it’s cold enough for the pipes to freeze.

There is also a spigot at Bath Rocks in the park.

Groceries

Get them before you arrive. In a pinch, Rock City has bread, tortillas, pasta, milk, eggs, and some other essentials (lots of quality beer). Tracy’s also has a few cooking items like all the ingredients for s’mores. The nearest large-selection grocery stores are an hour north in Burley (Smith’s and Albertson’s).

Camping

City of Rocks has over 60 campsites. Almost all of the sites have gorgeous views and pit toilets fairly near by. The State runs these and they’re $12.72 per night (2016). In-season, on weekends, these babies book up early so it’s best to reserve in advance. On weekdays, you’ll have your pick of the lot.

To reserve in campsites advance you’ll reserve through the horrible website by Reserve America. To reserve day of you can call the Ranger Station at (208) 824-5901.

Whether you reserve online or call, check out this camping map to get the best details of the sites.

Note: When reserving in advance you’ll need to add a $10 reservation fee (no matter how many days you’re reserving).

If you don’t reserve a site: check in with the Visitors Center / Ranger Station when you arrive. They’re incredibly friendly and can give tips of what sites are open and other advice. If they’re closed, there’s a pay station at Bath Rocks inside the park: Find an open site and fill out the envelope. Although the fee station doesn’t say they take credit cards, they do. Just write your name (as seen on the card), the number, and expiration date. Once the rangers charge the card, they shred your info.

Castle Rocks State Park also has serviced campsites for slightly over $20 a piece.

Free Camping

Camping on BLM land is free. To get to the official spot, drive past town about 2 miles straight south on the Elba-Almo Road. You’ll be traveling on a dirt road, and there will be a wood fence on both sides. Once you cross the cattle guard immediately take a right. This bouncy rocky road will take you to a bunch of fairly nice campsites (some with fire pits).

The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 6

Low-clearance vehicles be warned: you will have many obstacles to surpass; though it is possible, it’s much nicer to have a vehicle with clearance. The photo above makes the BLM road look considerably nicer than it really is.

RV / Trailer Camping

There are a fair number of sites that can accommodate a camper at City of Rocks. The Visitors Center has a handy map of these sites and their length so you’ll know if you can fit.

Just to the south of the entrance to City of Rocks (from the Almo side) there’s also an official National Parks campground/RV Park called the Smoky Mountain Campground that has water and electric and wifi. The prices were around $27 a day, which includes your $5 per day vehicle pass for the state park. Very clean, pet friendly, and showers are available.

For $10 a night you can park at Castleview RV Park. Calling it an RV Park is generous; you’re paying to park in a horse pasture (minus the horses), with no amenities. It serves as backup for the weekends when City of Rocks is booked and you fear for your car’s survival on the BLM road.

Phone / WiFi

In the park: Don’t count on any phone service. If you’re lucky, you can get Verizon 3G Extended Service in the 10 – 20 campsite areas near Elephant Rock, but Sprint and AT&T were out the last time we checked.
Downtown Almo: There’s enough service to check email (Sprint & AT&T confirmed).

Free wifi and outlets near by is nearly out of the question — other than sitting in the Visitor’s Center, you can use the historical video area. Please be mindful of this sacred opportunity!

In Almo you can also get 20 minutes free of BlueHost wifi every 12 hours, and you can buy more internet time (there’s a flyer in the Visitors Center about it). Tracy’s General Store has wifi for $2 /hour (and some outlets) but the tables are limited.

On the other side of the park, the Oakley Library has wifi (and outlets), but no designated tables to sit at, so you’ll have to get creative – we suggest going upstairs.

Otherwise, wifi is available at the coffee shops and library in the town of Burley, an hour north.

The Town 

Almo has an interesting assortment of stops and each venue plays many different roles.

Visitors Center / Ranger’s Station 

Incredibly helpful staff, they love their jobs and want you to fully enjoy your experience.
  • The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 7
  • Make reservations for campsites
  • Get suggestions for climbs/hikes
  • Find maps, get shirts, climbing goods (guidebook, chalk, etc)
  • Water Available Outside
  • Only spot for free wifi (you can ask to sit in the video area)

Rock City 

The two ladies that work here are particularly friendly, and can help you find whatever you’re looking for.
  • The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 8
  • pizza
  • lots of micro brews, ciders and cheap beer
  • essential groceries (pasta/sauce, eggs, milk)
  • camp fuel + other camping and climbing needs
  • mini auto store in back
  • on crappy weather days you’ll find climbers playing cards in the booths
  • In-season closes at 8pm, off-season 6pm. Closed Tuesdays / Wednesdays.

Tracy’s General Store

  • The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 9
  • gas station (diesel too)
  • post office
  • $4 showers (unlimited time)
  • $2 /hour wifi
  • breakfast (waffles is as complex as it gets)
  • In-season open’s at 8am, closes at 6pm, off-season closes at 5pm, and not open on Sundays.

Durfee Hot Springs

  • The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 10
  • 1 big pool, 1 smaller pool
  • open Thurs-Sat closing at 10pm. $7 (2017)

Almo Outpost

  • The Low-Down on Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho 11
  • Steak House Restaurant
  • Make hotel reservations for the Almo Inn, cheapest room is $125 (sleeps 4)

Festivals

Idaho Mountain Festival Live Band Shot in the Mountain

In late September you can enjoy the Idaho Mountain Festival. A fairly new festival that keeps it super friendly and fun. A low-cost entry-fee gives you tent camping, free access to Castle Rocks, lots of breakfasts and dinners, a live band, movies and slideshows, a huge raffle, clinics taught by pros, and access to demo lots of gear.

Bolting at City of Rocks / Castle Rocks

For City of Rocks NP – It is nearly impossible — you must submit a plan to be reviewed by the climbing ranger, an archeologist, a geologist and potentially even local tribe members. The process can take many months (at a minimum) and has a high chance of not even getting past the climbing ranger as the current consensus is that City of Rocks has enough climbs and the vegetation is too fragile to encourage more. They do permit about 20 route re-boltings a year, but that’s about it.

For Castle Rocks State Park – It’s much easier! You’ll need to schedule a tour (about an hour) with the climber ranger (or other permit holder) to get your own permit, but once you understand the bolting/gear requirements, path options, vegetation restrictions and such, you can bolt away. The climbing ranger said they are actively looking to boost the amount of routes at Castle Rocks State Park.

Final Note: There is always a climbing ranger on staff at City of Rocks. If you have further questions you can call the City of Rocks Visitor’s Center, (208) 824-5901, and ask for the climbing ranger to get more information.

 


Feel free to share any more tips in the comments. Or if there’s anything else you want to know about, let us know and we’ll find you the answers!

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Alison Dennis

Alison Dennis

Alison (she/her) runs WeighMyRack from her 17' travel trailer. She is currently touring the US and would love if you contacted her to meet up to talk about climbing, climbing gear, or if you have any fun and/or ridiculous adventure in mind.

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