I met her at the base of Bloody Fingers, a 5.10 hand and finger crack that I’d just led at the Super Hits Wall. The Ecuadorian and her boyfriend were eyeballing Twist and Crawl, a 5.8 prow to the right. The first bolt was gleaming about 30 feet up, and it wasn’t clear what happened above that.
“Do you know if thees climb ees all bolts?” she asked.
I didn’t. If I’d ever done the route, it had been two decades earlier, and her guidebook didn’t offer any answers, either. “Do you have any gear with you?” I asked her.
“Only quickdraws, no protections,” she said, smiling sweetly.
Why on earth would you come to the City of Rocks without a trad rack? I wondered. And then, a little chagrined, I remembered my own first trip to the City. Although I’d packed a rack, I hardly touched it—I was too intent on the City’s new sport climbs. It took a few more visits before I realized just how much I’d been missing.
The City of Rocks is a landscape of granite domes and spires, sage meadows, and aspen groves sprawling across a broad valley in south-central Idaho’s Albion Mountains. It’s one of America’s greatest destinations for mid-grade climbers. “Family friendly” is the phrase you often hear: The camping is cheap and pleasant, the approaches are short, and the staging areas below the climbs are generally flat and often shaded. It’s common to see a set of parents sneaking in a climb while the others babysit. For most climbers, City of Rocks is a destination for chilling outdoors with friends and family, not a place to push the sport’s limits.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, City of Rocks was at the cutting edge of American sport climbing. When my partners and I first drove across Colorado and Utah to get there, we went for one reason and one reason only: to clip bolts. These days, it’s hard to understand how novel and exciting sport climbing felt when it was still young in the United States. (It was also, of course, extremely controversial, but those of us who embraced sport climbing sought out new bolted routes like a dog seeks tennis balls.) At the City, bolted routes with names like She’s the Bosch and The Drilling Fields celebrated the new wave. A photo of Shelley Presson crimping a technicolor arête on the cover of Climbing No. 118 somehow made southern Idaho look sexy and enticing. Tony Yaniro was putting up 5.13s on a stunning formation called the Dolphin—we couldn’t climb that hard, but we wanted to crimp granite edges and clip solid bolts, and City of Rocks was the place to do it. There were crack climbs here, we knew, but we barely glanced at them. Hardly anybody did.
Along with countless curious Americans, many of Europe’s best climbers made the unlikely pilgrimage to Idaho. Experimentation and controversy followed. In the nearby Castle Rocks area, Yaniro created a bizarre climbing competition on lines of chipped and bolt-on holds leading up blank granite. When the National Reserve was created, two of the leading City of Rocks climbers were temporarily banned from the park for various infractions. Within a year of my first visit, the Dolphin was closed (it was located on private land), and a moratorium on new bolts was imposed. The best climbers moved on to newly discovered—and much steeper—sport climbs in places like Rifle, Colorado, and American Fork, Utah. What was left was an everyman’s Eden. The few new climbs that get bolted today (under a permit system) are generally much easier than in the past—some of the most popular are multi-pitch, heavily bolted 5.7s and 5.8s. The sport climbing is fun and well-protected, but if you come here more than once (and, for God’s sake, you should), you may start looking for more. Like television or snack food, the familiar sport climbs of the City are easy to consume, but not deeply satisfying. Looking for greater rewards, I decided to check out some of those crack climbs I’d skipped years ago.
What I discovered was a wonderland of varied, historical, and just plain fun climbs. A route like Brown Flake (5.10d) on Morning Glory Spire had intricate moves, excellent protection, and a burning pump, and to me it was infinitely more memorable than the crowded 5.10 sport route just to its left. Trad routes drew me to entire cliffs that I might never have visited otherwise, like the amazing Lost Arrow Spire (5.7), deep in the Circle Creek drainage, or the Buzzard Perch, home to a top-notch corner called Terror of Tiny Town (5.11a/b)—minutes from the car but unvisited by the hordes on nearby Parking Lot and Rabbit rocks.
I also learned that the ’80s sport climbing boom was not the first time the City had been at the forefront of American rock climbing. During the 1960s, the cracks and runout friction faces established by the Steinfell Club—an informal gang of mostly Utah-based climbers led by the preternaturally talented Greg Lowe—were equal to or harder than the hardest routes being done at the time in Yosemite Valley, Eldorado Canyon, and the Shawangunks. Tucked away in a southern Idaho backwater, with no magazine reports or the Internet to trumpet achievements, these climbs were noticed by few. Later, would-be first ascensionists in the City often discovered that Lowe and his peers had gotten there first.
These trad routes, along with other lines put up in the 1980s by Reid Dowdle, Stan Caldwell, Dan Sperlock, and Dave Bingham, are attractive in other ways, too. Many of them will take pro almost anywhere, making them well-suited for developing skills and pushing grades. The rock here is more textured than Yosemite Valley’s slippery granite, and the lines are much more varied than Indian Creek’s towering splitters—meaning a single rack of nuts and cams is usually plenty. On the other hand, the City’s trad routes are no place to collect big, ego-boosting numbers. As Jim Donini, who has been climbing at City of Rocks since the late 1970s, puts it, “The sport ratings and the trad ratings here are… kinda different.” Meaning considerably stiffer.
But that’s OK. After two rounds in the spotlight of American climbing, City of Rocks isn’t the place for big-grade, spray-worthy ascents. Now, above all, it’s a place to have fun, and the more you explore the City’s trad climbs, the more fun you’ll have.
Get Outta Town: Four Killer Rest Day Activities
Hike/run. The Circle Creek loop cruises eight miles along the north and south forks of the City’s main drainage, passing many outstanding crags—it’s a great chance to scope out-of-the-way climbs. Side trails provide options for shorter hikes.
Cycle. Bring a bike for quick outhouse visits from your campsite, and then tour the City on a rest day. A roughly 20-mile loop follows the park’s recommended auto tour along the mid-1800s Emigrant Trail to California (don’t miss the names painted on Register Rock in wagon-axle grease). Finish the loop by blasting down the Tea Kettle Trail from Emery Pass. Find a map at nps.gov/ciro.
Soak. Durfee Hot Springs in Almo (durfeehotsprings.com) houses steamy pools, swimming, and showers. Tracy’s General Store in Almo also offers showers ($4). For a more natural experience, scramble up the west side of Bath Rock (four rebar ladder rungs at the crux) and take a dip in the rain-filled potholes on top—a ritual for the native Shoshone, according to legend.
Eat. Escape evening thunderstorms with a night on the town in tiny Almo. The Outpost Steakhouse (almocreek.com/outpost, closes early on Sunday) has, yes, steaks—and killer homemade pies. Or hit Rock City Mercantile for pizza and craft beer.
Be a Good Neighbor: A Word of Advice on Life in the City
Toproping is very popular at the City, and it’s a great way to expose climbers to new styles and difficulties. But siege-toproping a route (or entire cliff sector) with a large group is extremely discourteous and deprives leaders of the chance to experience all the great climbs the area has to offer. If you have a large group, break into smaller parties, switch routes frequently, and let someone lead through if your group has already done three or four ascents of a given climb.
The Hit List: Must-Do Trad Routes in the City
Norma’s Book, Parking Lot Rock This chimney doesn’t look that great from the car, but solid rock, a cool tunnel at the start, and diverse climbing make it well worth doing. Two ropes for the rappel.
Easy Corner, Provo Wall The big, left-facing corner is intimidating and has a tricky and somewhat runout start, but experienced 5.6 leaders (it’s actually called 5.5 in the guidebook, but most consider it sandbagged) will love this route. The Provo Wall has two other excellent trad moderates—Triple Roofs (5.7) and White Flake (5.8)—and a good mixed route: Tennish Anyone (5.10a).
Wheat Thin, Elephant Rock An easy slab leads to a steepening, right-facing flake system. Plentiful jugs and footholds make this much easier than it looks from the ground. A 70m rope (or two ropes) is necessary to toprope or descend, and a No. 4 cam is nice but not essential. Nearby Rye Crisp (5.8) is the left-facing analog to Wheat Thin: wider and considerably harder, but still classic.
Lost Arrow (aka Classic Route), Lost Arrow Spire An exciting route to a spectacular summit, deep in the Circle Creek basin. After the tricky but well-protected crux pitch leading to a belay perch on the northeast shoulder, the second pitch moves back onto the east face, where an unprotected slab gains the top (5.5 R). Be careful how the rope runs over the sharp edge of the tower. A free-hanging 25-meter rappel brings you back down.
Lowe Route (aka Adolescent Homosexual or Adolescent Homosapien), Decadent Wall This climb and the neighboring Carol’s Crack (5.8) both start with scrambling and then steepen to an interesting crux headwall. A 70-meter rope is nice but not essential for the descent. Good morning shade. Tag ’em both.
Skyline, Morning Glory Spire Often crowded—but always worth checking out. As the name suggests, the route climbs the left skyline of the prominent tower (also known as the Incisor), as seen from the road. Interspersing cracks with face moves, this is not the best route for a novice leader, but it will reward anyone with trad experience—at this or any higher grade.
Batwings, Parking Lot Rock Variety is the theme of this 5.8+: Cracks, a hand traverse, and an exciting face climb at the top make it much more rewarding than the more popular and bolted Delay of Game (5.8) to its left. Use long slings on your first few pieces to minimize rope drag, and bear left to find the easiest path up the runout face at the top. Two ropes to rappel.
Private Idaho, Bath Rock While the crowds chase bolts up Rollercoaster (5.9) and Colossus (5.10c), rack up with nuts and cams for this beautiful corner crack. Go straight up the wider crack at the top for the 5.9 finish, or cheat left at 5.8. If this route’s a breeze for you, try Donini’s Crack (burly 5.10) on the same wall.
Yellow Wall, Twin Sisters area The striking Twin Sisters formations are off-limits, but some of the smaller rocks nearby are open to climbers—yet few venture to this isolated corner. Hike between the Twin Sisters and then weave along the ridgeline to stay on public land until you reach the Yellow Wall formation. This colorful 5.9 offers brilliant stemming along thin cracks, with knobs and patina edges for footholds. From the top, you can set up topropes on King of Suede (5.10c) or Wages of Sin (5.11b). And while you’re in the Twin Sisters area, don’t miss White Lightning (5.10a), a superb left-facing layback and jam crack.
Thin Slice, Parking Lot Rock Among the many great 5.10 crack climbs in the City, one of the best is Thin Slice (5.10a), which climbs like a juggy sport route (with nuts and cams for pro) until you reach a technical finger-crack crux. In my opinion, this is much better than the popular Bloody Fingers, also 5.10a. You can try to cheat left on both routes near the top, but Thin Slice doesn’t let you get away with it. A 5.10 climber could spend all day on good trad routes on the east side of Parking Lot: Other recommended ticks include Stress Fracture, Tow-Away Zone, and Beauty and the Beast.
Brown Flake, Morning Glory Spire Steep, intricate, and well-protected, this killer 5.10+ looks easy, yet it doesn’t see much traffic. If this were bolted, the moves would seem reasonable for the grade, but the pump clock ticks as you fiddle in wires, and most people are tempted to skip some placements and punch it to the jugs near the top.
Scar Tissue, The Office The Office corridor on the east side of the Creekside crag gets few visitors. Scar Tissue (5.11a) has a bouldery crux start—a crashpad would be welcome—followed by sustained thin-crack climbing. The gear is plentiful but painstaking to place, and there’s a second crux up high. Don’t miss Silent Partner (5.10d), a varied crack and face route with two bolts, just up the corridor.
Terror of Tiny Town, Buzzard Perch It’s safe to say that this 5.11a/b is one of the best thin corner cracks anywhere. Boulder up to a bolt (a stick-clip is nice), and then crank up to the bottom of the corner. Place a nest of small nuts and work up one engaging move after another, with a technical layback crux, to easier climbing near the bolt anchor at the top.
Beware of Nesting Egos, Elephant Rock With three well-spaced bolts in nearly 100 feet, supplemented by trad pro, this 5.11b classic requires serious skills and steady nerves. A finger crack, wild traverses, and some runout face climbing pack what feels like a full day of climbing into a half-rope length.
Crack of Doom, Morning Glory Spire This 5.11c crack splitting the western prow of Morning Glory was one of the hardest free routes in the country when Greg Lowe led it in 1965. The joy is in the variety: a bouldery start followed by a technical, strenuous thin crack leading to an ever-widening finish. The offwidth section is short and easy to bypass with long reaches from good jams. Beware: The oft-stick-clipped fixed piton protecting the start has been replaced at least once—it may not be bombproof. Either toprope the route or save it for the serious effort a classic testpiece deserves.
The Tip Line: Have More Fun and Beat the Crowds
Bring a stick-clip or learn how to make one (climbing.com/stick-clip). Many City classics (including trad climbs) have high first bolts or fixed pieces.
Reserve one of the City’s 64 campsites ($10.60–$12.72) as early as possible prior to your trip. Spaces fill quickly for Friday and Saturday nights (parksandrecreation.idaho.gov).
Choose a walk-in campsite for privacy and stellar views. These are often shady—a big plus in midsummer.
Refill your water jugs at a spigot in the Bath Rock parking area.
Groceries? Movies? Bowling? Head an hour north to Burley.
Climb during the week, and take a rest on Saturday, the peak day for crowds from the Salt Lake City area. Head to nearby Castle Rocks State Park on Sunday—the formations and climbs are similar, but the routes are less crowded.
Climb early and late in the day, and take a siesta midday when the crags tend to be busiest and hottest.
Anytime before Memorial Day or after Labor Day will be much less busy than midsummer. But beware: It could snow anytime.
Walk 30 to 60 minutes into the North Circle Creek or Twin Sisters areas to avoid the roadside masses.
Get a copy of the latest guidebook from Dave Bingham (falcon.com), due in spring 2014, to locate lesser-known routes.
Off the Beaten Cracks: Local Experts Reveal Their Under-the-Radar Favorites
Kim Miller, Alpine, Utah; Climbing in the City since 1968
Catwalk (5.8), Upper Breadloaves. “Friction, cracks, laybacks, face climbing. Much better climbing than Intruding Dike or Twist and Crawl—both within 100 feet—that are always stacked up with parties waiting in line.”
Battle of the Bulges (5.11a), Window Rock. “I’ve never seen a party on it. Classic stemming with small wired nut protection.”
Spider Gawd, aka Bad Manners (5.11b), Upper Breadloves. “Done in the ’70s by Jeff Lowe (guidebook says Greg Lowe—wrong) and Kevin Donald. Pretty airy and hard. I have never seen anyone else on this climb—ever!”
Brian Cabe, Salt Lake City, Utah; Climbing in the City since 1985
Corridor Crack (5.8), The Boxtop. “Short finger crack inside a shady chimney.”
Eagle Crack (5.10a), Eagle Rock. “Long, varied, excellent—and shady. Bring a 70-meter rope to lower off.”
Reach for the Sky (5.10b R), Morning Glory Spire. “A thin face/mixed route left of the popular Skyline, with a few bolts. Bring spotters for the start and small wires and cams for the finish.”
Heartbreaker (5.10d), Heartbreaker. “Short but stout thin-hands corner crack.”
Dave Bingham, Hailey, Idaho; City guidebook author; climbing in the City since 1978
West Ridge (“5.5-ish”), Lookout Rock. “Fantastic summit view.”
Norma’s Book (5.6), Parking Lot Rock. “Varied movement up a huge corner with cool features.”
White Flake (5.8), Provo Wall. “Engaging moves centered around a seemingly suspect, but solid, pillar.”
Boxtop Traverse (5.9), The Boxtop. “Super weird, but it’s a required route for all City climbers. Start with a perfect crack inside a chimney, and then do a freaky traverse under the giant block. Finish with classic edges all the way to the summit.”
Humble’s Tumble (“5.9d”), Provo Wall. “Training for Yosemite? Go here first.”
No Parking (5.10a), Parking Lot Rock. “It’s one of the best short cracks the City has to offer, but an easy fifth-class scramble to the awesome starting ledge keeps crowds away.”
Eagle Crack (5.10a), Twin Sisters. “Exposed and demanding old-school crack.”
Silent Partner (5.10d), The Office. “This has two bolts in the middle, but the biz is a testy finger crack up top.”
Scar Tissue (5.11a), The Office. “Maybe not off the radar, but it’s not to be missed. A bouldery start leads to in-your-face finger stuffing.”
Odyssey (5.12a), Odyssey Wall. “Crazy bouldery start to an awesome leaning hand crack.”
Brad Shilling, Almo, Idaho, City of Rocks climbing ranger; climbing in the City since 1991
“Many of the climbs in the North Fork of Circle Creek would have waiting lines if they were closer to the road.” For example:
Modelo (5.8+), Great Wall.
Crescent Crack (5.10a), Crescent Crag.
Fiesta (5.10b), Fiesta Spire.
Beef Jello (5.10d), Beef Jello.
Doug Colwell, Boise, Idaho, Climbing in the City “since dinosaurs roamed the Earth”
Yellow Wall (5.9) and King of Suede (5.10c), Yellow Wall. “Sweet side-by-side lines.”
Donini’s Crack (5.10c), Bath Rock. “It’s spit out more than one Yosemite crack climber.”
Checkered Demon (5.11c), Checkered Demon. “Very difficult start even before the hold broke.”