Located in south central Idaho and only a stone’s throw away from the Utah border, lies a silent city of immense boulders. City of Rocks National Reserve is a popular destination for rock climbers throughout North America but to the rest of the public this tiny remote wonder of the National Park system is little known. 

The area was also a well-known landmark to early settlers as they passed through the area on their way to find riches, or more often heartbreak, in the gold fields of California and later to establish homesteads in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 emigrants passed through the city in the mid 1850’s. Evidence of their journey can still be found at Camp Rock and Register Rock where they left their names written in axel grease.

The geology which created this city of strangely formed spires and boulders is very similar to another well-known climbing destination and more famous Joshua Tree National Park. At both Joshua Tree and City of Rocks, small localized faults slowly cracked the overlying lava deposits. These cracks allowed water to seep in and, over millions of years, erode the lava into large boulders, as well as, carry away the surrounding debris, leaving the landscape we see today. 

Along with the rock climbers, City of Rocks is home to a variety of plants and wildlife. Mule deer, coyote, bobcat, mountain cottontail, jack rabbit, yellow-bellied marmot, and chipmunks frequent the reserve. Spring wildflowers include lupine, phlox, columbine, paintbrush, asters and balsamroot. 

For photographers, the reserve offers a wide range of opportunities. Sweeping vistas overlooking the city can be found at the north end of the park near Finger Rock, the Bread Loaves formation and the Emery Pass picnic area. Several trails from Bath Rock and the various camping areas lead down among the boulders for a more intimate view.  Weathered pinyon pine and panholes offer great foreground elements for compositions of the boulders and spires. The largest concentration of boulders are located on the western side of the valley so sunrise will typically provide the best light although wonderful images can be taken throughout the day.

The reserve is open year-round with spring and autumn months being the best for photography in order to capture the spring wildflowers and fall colors of aspen and alder. Winter can also be a beautiful time for photography, however, keep in mind that the reserve is at an elevation of 6,000 feet and snow is frequent. Travel to, from and inside the reserve can be difficult. 

David L. Anderson