Many snowmobilers have heard West Yellowstone and other communities bordering National Parks referred to as gateway communities. These towns sit on or near the borders of National Parks and serve as gateways—hence the name—to what’s inside the Parks.
So how about a National Park or Reserve being a gateway Park to some great riding outside the Park—a place where you can access great off-trail snowmobiling by going through a Park or Reserve.
Okay, that might be a stretch but if you were ever to make a case for such a designation, the City of Rocks National Reserve would definitely fit the bill.
Tucked away in southcentral Idaho close to the Utah/Idaho border and largely unknown, the City of Rocks National Reserve is another one of those unique snowmobiling experiences almost nobody has heard of. And while a snowmobiler wouldn’t absolutely have to go through the City of Rocks to gain access to some of southern Idaho’s best sledding, doing so allows quick access to the Sawtooth National Forest as you pass some gnarly rock formations on the way. If you want a cool crash course in geology and rock formations, the City of Rocks is your place.
Of A City
The City of Rocks, famous among rock climbers around the world, is also steeped in history as the old California Trail and Boise-Kelton Stage Route pass through its borders. The Reserve’s name was uttered more than 150 years ago by early pioneers who passed the rock formations. This comes from the City of Rocks’ official guide. “We encamped at the city of the rocks, a noted place from the granite rocks rising abruptly out of the ground,” wrote James Wilkins in 1849. “They are in a romantic valley clustered together, which gives them the appearance of a city.” Wilkins was among the first wagon travelers to fix the name City of Rocks to what looked like “a dismantled, rock-built city of the Stone Age.”
For years the City of Rocks served as a landmark for pioneers and later freight routes which passed this way (52,000 emigrants passed through here in 1852).
Although the City of Rocks might be a destination to some, it won’t take long to explore this relatively new National Reserve (so designated in 1988) from the seat of a snowmobile. Sleds are limited to the Reserve’s existing roads, which total about 11 miles (no chance of getting lost here). We entered the Reserve at the Almo entrance after a brief stop at the Reserve headquarters (about 2.6 miles from the entrance) and then stayed in the northern half of the Reserve. City of Rocks National Reserve Superintendent Wallace Keck explained that when the snow conditions are right, you can make a loop from the “Y” (where the routes split in the Park and one road heads south toward the Junction entrance and the other toward Emery Canyon) past the Twin Sisters rock formation, out the Junction entrance and then back north to the Emery Canyon entrance and to the Y. It’s best to check the road conditions in the Reserve before heading out. The Park’s visitors center is open Monday through Friday in the winter.
If you head northwest from the Y, you pass many of the Reserve’s biggest rock formations. We parked (where you can park depends on snow conditions; again, check with the visitors center for parking locations) near Elephant Rock, unloaded and headed toward Emery Canyon. We passed Elephant Rock, Bath Rock, the Inner City (which is all the rocks and formations in the valley) and the Bread Loaves. Some of these unique granite formations reach as much as 600 feet above the ground. Snow conditions varied but there was plenty enough on the roads we were riding
Bird’s Eye View
Once we got to Emery Canyon, we headed north through Indian Grove up Logger Springs Road towards the Graham Peak (elevation 8,867 feet) ridgeline. Juniper trees and sagebrush at the lower elevations gradually gave way to pines and Quaking Aspens as we climbed. We left the Reserve boundaries for a bit as we made our way to Graham Peak, which sits inside the Reserve on the northern end. Not only is the snow deeper on Graham Peak but you also get a bird’s eye view of the City of Rocks. This by far was the best view of the Reserve’s rock formations we had during our trip.
One of the hot riding spots just north of the City of Rocks is Almo Park, a vast area of open meadows and hills to climb. Once you break out of the trees and get on some of the ridges north of the City of Rocks you can see forever in all directions. To the west is the small Idaho community of Oakley, to the north Cache Peak (10,339 feet), to the east smaller mountain ranges (including the Jim Sage Mountains) and to the south the Cedar Hills.
The Almo Park area is a popular spot among locals because of the varied terrain and snow depth. Whereas snow depth in the City of Rocks (elevation 5,500 feet) might seem a bit minuscule, once you head north out of the Reserve into the national forest where the riding goes up to 9,500 feet, you’ll find plenty to track up. We did.
Popular might be a relative term, though, because this area doesn’t see a lot of traffic. Most of the Reserve’s 85,000 annual visitors visit during the summer months. We did see a handful of riders in the Almo Park area, but only briefly.
Riding snowmobiles is plenty of fun…but when you can combine it with something unique like seeing the City of Rocks National Reserve, it just makes it that much more exciting.
That’s why we consider the City of Rocks to be a gateway to fun.