- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

CITY OF ROCKS NATIONAL RESERVE, Idaho — The towering spikes, monoliths and pillars of granite that jut out of the high desert floor along the old wagon trail to California’s gold fields were marveled at by thousands of transcontinental travelers more than a century ago.

“Encamped in Granite City one of the finest places of its kind in the World, I banter the World to beat it,” Dr. John Hudson Wayman wrote in his emigrant journal while camped at City of Rocks on July 12, 1852.

Congress set aside the southeastern Idaho valley of geologic oddities as a national reserve in 1988 to recognize its significance as a historical landmark on the California Trail. Today, most of the more than 70,000 people who visit the City of Rocks annually come not for pioneer recollection, but world-class rappelling.

“This is the best granite-face climbing in the country,” says Wallace Keck, superintendent of City of Rocks National Reserve and the neighboring Castle Rocks State Park. “There are more popular and taller places to climb, but there isn’t better granite for sport climbing in the U.S.”

The reason is simple.

“There is just more rock to hold onto,” says Brad Schilling, who pioneered many of the routes at City of Rocks and has been the reserve’s climbing ranger the past 10 years. “Usually, granite is smooth between the crack system, but here it’s unusual because there are so many places on the face to hold onto.”

Features with names such as Rabbit Rock, Heartbreaker Wall, Morning Glory Spire and Bread Loaves have become popular draws for world-class technical climbers, while the so-called Inner City Boulders — smaller formations that sprout skyward from fields of purple, white and yellow irises — attract newcomers as well as veterans honing their skills.

“The climbers that come here now are more likely to be in an SUV with a bullet box on top and a kiddie car seat in the back than in a beat-up old Toyota or van,” Mr. Schilling says.

“There has been a definite change in the climbing demographic to more families and groups, such as Scouts and college clubs.”

Several of the spires of rock are historic billboards that memorialize the thousands of westward settlers who passed through from 1843 until 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed. Names, dates and personal ads such as “Wife Wanted’ — were scrawled on the rock with axle grease and tar and still are clearly visible at such spots as Register Rock, which is off-limits to climbing.

Although sport climbing is the main recreation magnet, the National Park Service site 200 miles southeast of Boise is morphing into a camping destination as well, with a 60-site recreational vehicle campground under construction just outside the park’s boundaries.

The new campground will be in addition to the 62 existing primitive campsites scattered at the base of features such as Bath Rock, Parking Lot Rock and the iconic Twin Sisters, dual rock cones that mark the exit from the city where wagon trains headed south into the Nevada desert and on toward California.

“With the RV campground, we will be attracting a whole new clientele,” Mr. Keck says. “We’ll still get that just-out-of-college crowd who are into dirt camping and want the primitive sites, but we’re going to get people in the new campground that may be more interested in the history than the rock climbing.”

• • •

City of Rocks National Reserve: Go to www.nps.gov/ciro or call 208/824-5519. Open year-round. Visitors center open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

City of Rocks is in southern Idaho, on the northern edge of the Great Basin. Services are limited, but meals, overnight lodging, gasoline and groceries are available in nearby communities.

Exum Mountain Guides of Jackson, Wyo. (www.exumguides.com or 307/733-2297) and Sawtooth Guides of Stanley, Idaho (www.sawtoothguides.com or 208/774-3324) offer professionally guided climbs in the City of Rocks.

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