For a weekend escape, take a trip to the silent rock city

Wednesday , July 23, 2014 - 1:24 PM

Arches, Canyonlands and Zion get a lot of well-deserved attention in the local national parks scene, but southern Idaho offers a hidden gem that’s considerably closer for adventure-seekers in northern Utah.

The City of Rocks National Reserve offers around 23 square miles of outdoor playground that’s a short 2.5-hour drive from Ogden. It also sees a fraction of the visitors that travel to other nearby national parks. With lone monoliths scattered throughout the landscape, the aptly named “city” looks like ancient structures left by giants. It’s no wonder the site is popular among climbers, who have been exploring the area since at least the 1960s. But there’s more to the national reserve than clambering up cliffs. The City of Rocks has plenty of appeal for families, bikers, hikers and horseback riders.

As it happens, the City of Rocks is also an important preserve for the California Trail, an overland route for emigrants seeking gold and land between the 1840s and 1860, making it a great place to spend Pioneer Day weekend (even if said pioneer trail never actually passed through Utah, it still came close).


The City of Rocks has become a climbing mecca for good reason. Ogden locals and climbing legends like Greg, George and Jeff Lowe realized its potential and helped pioneer some of the area’s earliest routes in the 1960s. By the National Park Service’s count, the City now has around 600 climbs, ranging from 5.6 to 5.14 and between 30 feet and 600 feet high with a smattering of bouldering. Ancient granite makes for coarse, crystalized rock that gobbles gear. There’s also a decent amount of sport and mixed gear/bolt climbing with fun face features like chickenheads, patina plates and weathered pockets.

If the reserve’s hundreds of lines aren’t enough, Castle Rocks has plenty more climbs, and is only a stone’s throw (no pun intended) from the City. Remember, portions of Castle Rocks within BLM land are closed to climbing to protect cultural resources. NPS officials said this rule is strictly enforced. Visit for more information or stop by the City of Rocks National Reserve Visitor’s Center in Alamo. 

The most recent guidebook for the City of Rocks is available at the Front Climbing Club in Ogden. Visit for contact information and directions.

For those who are curious about climbing but haven’t had the chance to try, NPS offers the Climbing Experience Program at the City of Rocks. Trained staffers set up ropes on easy climbing routes so beginners can see what the fuss is all about. The intro program is a steal at just $37.50 for two hours per adult. 

Kid-friendly action

The reserve has loads of flat, easy hiking trails with dazzling views perfect for families. The Creekside Towers Trail is less than a mile and provides a good survey of the unique geological features that have impressed human visitors for over a century. Some of those early pioneer visitors left their names in axle grease as they camped at the site, moving west along the California Trail, which are visible along the hike.

Kiddos can also try out climbing with the youth version of the Climbing Experience Program, which starts at $20 per kid per hour. Youth must be between 10 and 17 to participate and accompanied by an adult.

There’s also the ever-popular Junior Ranger Program, offered at many sites in the national park system, which helps youngsters appreciate the natural wonders of the reserve and become responsible stewards of the resource.

The City by wheel, hoof or foot

There are around 12 miles of unpaved road and about 22 miles of trails within the park, many of which are open to both mountain bikes and horses. While this might not make the reserve a world-class biking destination, the general lack of crowds, scenery and varied terrain make for a rewarding trek. The loop around Elephant Rock and Twin Sisters provides a particularly gratifying 8-mile circuit, passing by some of the park’s most iconic rock formations. The 2.5-mile Tea Kettle Trail has a good survey of the reserve’s different vegetation and ecosystems, passing by junipers, aspen and sagebrush. According to the NPS, it’s also a good trail to spot mule deer, sage grouse and other local critters.

Remember, horses always have the right-of-way, and bikers should yield to both hikers and horseback riders. Visit the City of Rocks Visitor Center in nearby Almo for maps and more information on trials. The NPS also offers occasional ranger-lead horseback rides through the park.

Eat, sleep, play, repeat

There’s no entry fee for the City of Rocks National Reserve. Campers have 64 campsites to choose from, with metal fire rings, grills, picnic tables and vault toilets. Some are RV-friendly, while others are walk-in tent sites. Many sites are situated below the reserve’s unique rock formations or provide stunning views. Campers aren’t permitted to gather firewood at the reserve, so bring it with you. Camping costs $12.72 per night for single sites plus a $10.60 reservation fee. Reservations can be made on the City of Rock NPS website.

For those looking for a less primitive experience, the nearby Caste Rocks State Park has a century-old ranch house retrofitted into a guest lodge with TVs, wifi, kitchen, full bathroom and accommodations for up to eight people. The lodge can be rented for $159 a night. The park also rents a more primitive bunkhouse for up to 12 guests. The bunkhouse has a kitchen, living area and hostel-style bunk sleeping. Guests must bring their own sleeping bags or linens, towels and cooking equipment. The entire bunkhouse can be rented for $106 a night, or individuals can walk-in and rent a bed for $12.72 a night. More information and reservations are available at

Food, firewood and other supplies are available at nearby Almo, about three miles east of the City of Rocks. On your way back home, be sure to stop at Rock City Mercantile for tasty pizza and cold beer (or soda). The big red building is easy to spot in town along the main drag. 

For more information on the City of Rocks National Reserve, visit or call the Visitor Center at (208) 824-5901. 

Sign up for e-mail news updates.