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Theme-focused highways and byways crisscross the U.S. Scenic, historic, foodie trails, kitsch and patriotic – there’s something for everyone when it comes to road-tripping across this great land.
But Southeastern Idaho offers a landscape like no other. It’s an area less visited than most and one I might have missed if not for the family connection.
The City of Rocks Backcountry Byway is just off Interstate 84. It traverses fifty miles of almost desolate but peaceful ranchland with wide-open high-desert sage and hayfields. The byway also passes through small historic towns, eventually opening into a jaw-dropping panorama of fortress-like rocks.
Following the California Trail
This quiet road winding around the Albion Mountains is ideal for a Sunday drive or a long weekend getaway. It was once part of a journey, consisting of hundreds of miles, for settlers seeking a better life in California and Oregon. They called it the California Trail.
Between 1843 and 1862, more than 200,000 emigrants came by wagon, horseback, and on foot. They traversed the route scouted by trappers and explorers following trails left by the Bannock and Shoshone.
The frontiersman left trail markers and journal notes as they crossed through what is now the City of Rocks National Reserve. Furthermore, emigrants scrawled names and messages in axle grease on rocks along the route.
Travelers rarely used the wagon trails after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Still, stagecoach and supply routes through the area connected the railroad city of Kelton, Utah, with the mining center in Boise, Idaho. The stage stop provided refreshments and a change of horses.
I have driven this road many times, stopping at the historical markers, thinking of those early travelers.
The City of Rocks Family Connection
Beginning in the early 1980s, we came to visit my husband Kenny’s family, who’d settled in this valley over a hundred years ago. In 1902, Johann Jacob Bruesch thought it reminded him of his homeland in Switzerland, and so they stayed.
According to my mother-in-law and great-granddaughter of Johann’s, Dorothy Vail Dickerson, not much has changed. The tiny towns of Albion, Conner, Elba, and Almo are just as far apart today as they were then. It feels worlds away from the noise, traffic, and stress of everyday life.
Dorothy’s mother, Iona Bruesch Vail, was born in 1908 in a cabin on a ranch tucked between Castle Rocks State Park and the City of Rocks National Reserve. Both are idyllic and unspoiled, offering camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, equestrian trails, winter snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Castle Rocks State Park
Castle Rocks is where the scenery changes from serene to dramatic as the stunning granite rock formations begin to appear. Unique to this park are the indigenous pictographs less than half a mile from the trailhead. The options for overnight stays make Castle Rocks a fun base camp for visiting both.
The Lodge is a completely remodeled century-old farmhouse. Willow Yurt provides upscale glamping for a couple and the Bunkhouse, a large one-room barn-like building, has a wood-burning fireplace and cooking facilities.
Then there’s Smokey Mountain Campground with facilities for equestrian campers. Inside the City of Rocks, there are also 64 primitive campsites.
City of Rocks National Reserve
The City of Rocks is the main attraction and the more significant of the two. Additionally, unlike Castle Rocks, the road goes all the way through. The 14,000-acre reserve showcases the under-the-radar but spectacular geologic features of the area.
Informational plaques mark historic trails and scenic viewpoints. Remnants of old homesteads, wagon ruts and ruins of the old stage stop are visible from the side of the road.
Visitors, national and international, come for world-class rock climbing. Also to ponder and play, finding solace among the two-billion-year-old granite monoliths. From the Circle Creek Overlook, just inside the eastern entrance, it is easy to see why the emigrants named it the “silent city” of steeples, cathedrals, windows, and bathtubs.
The view is awe-inspiring. The massive pillars, spires, and domes rise from miles of blue-gray scrub sage, juniper and pine. Small creeks meander throughout.
The setting inspired James F. Wilkins, an English portrait painter who penned the name City of Rocks in 1849. He wrote: “…they are in a romantic valley clustered together…a dismantled, rock-built city of the Stone Age.”
Staying in Almo, Idaho
If you’re not into camping, the Almo Inn features cute cabins with back decks perfect for capturing the mountainside bathed in the crimson blush of sunrise. Old-fashioned Western décor and oversized jetted tubs make the Inn an oasis of comfort.
Unfortunately, their restaurant is closed due to covid-19, but it hopes to reopen next spring to serve their hearty steak dinners again.
No steak dinners, but many other goodies can be found at the Tracy General Store in Almo, the oldest of its kind in Idaho. Established in 1894 and still owned and run by the Tracy family, this basic corner grocery and supply store features hand-dipped ice cream.
Old photographs line the walls, and wood plank floors creak underneath. Surprisingly, they even have two showers available for a small fee.
A sensuous treat in Almo is Durfee Hot Springs. The Durfees, another founding family, have been offering comforting soaks since the early 1900s. Remodeled and updated they offer three pools of hot spring water at varying degrees of temperature.
The property also features a concession stand and a gift shop. My husband isn’t much of a pool guy, but it was a highlight of the trip for our young daughters.
After all these years, I still like to visit. I feel a particular belonging and the quiet calm lures me back. Though some family members are gone, the rowdy kids have grown up, and I’m now one of the old folks.
I still like to listen to my mothers-in-law’s stories of scrambling among the rocks looking for the old garnet pit. Also, making ice cream in the high country using snow to freeze the sugar, vanilla and fresh cream mixture. “It was an all-day affair cranking the wooden handles until the ice cream was ready,” she said.
Before reaching the mighty rocks, I might venture off the main byway up to Lake Cleveland, a pristine blue alpine lake. Or ride the chairlift to the top of Pomerelle Mountain Resort, where my sister-in-law, Teri Ann Porter, says the skiing is “easy, really fun, and gets really good snow.”
Emery Pass to Oakley
I always make the whole loop over Emery Pass, the main pass through the City of Rocks, stopping to look back at the layers of blue-gray mountains fading to the east like a Turner watercolor. In the fall, the leaves of the quaking aspen glimmer like a million butterflies dipped in gold leaf.
The gravel road descends into the historic town of Oakley, the end of the City of Rocks Backcountry Byway. The buildings date back to 1878 and are constructed primarily of a white stone quarried nearby known as Oakley stone.
A nondescript building houses Judy’s Café. A sign boasts the best burgers in Magic Valley, making for a quick refueling before reconnecting with the present.
Beyond Oakley, the reality of how much has changed on this side of the loop around the Albion Mountains becomes crystal clear. Surrounded by vast fields of irrigated farmland with modern equipment, the road leads back to the interstate, where the speed limit is 80 mph.
Book This Trip
Ready to explore the majesty of City of Rocks National Park? Start preparing for your trip with insider tips on how to get around, hotels and VRBO accommodations, local restaurant recommendations along the route and more through TripAdvisor and Travelocity.
For the best flight deals and ground transportation rentals, check out CheapOair.
Some excellent information on this part of the world can be found here – Visit Southern Idaho.
Author’s Bio: Deb Dickerson is a freelance travel writer who calls the Pacific Northwest home, although you’ll likely find her in a warmer climate when the weather turns gray and cold. She is always looking for an adventure and a different outlook staying off the interstate, cruising the Scenic Byways and Highways. She loves a good road trip as much as a well-curated, small group tour far from home. For her, cultural travel, historic destinations, and fascinating traditions are what make a place special. Read her stories in International Living, Short Weeks Long Weekends, Travel Post Monthly, Travel Through History, and various local papers. Look for her latest piece coming soon in Handwoven Magazine.