Adventures with Grandpa: City of Rocks

“During the forenoon, we passed through a stone village composed of huge, isolated rocks of various and singular shapes, some resembling cottages, others steeples or domes.  It is called the City of Rocks, but I think the name Pyramid City more suitable.  It is a sublime, strange, and wonderful scene of nature’s most interesting works.” -Margaret Frink– July 15, 1859

On our latest adventure with Grandpa, we traveled to the Northwestern tip of Utah and into Southern Idaho. We left home on a Friday afternoon and headed north to Snowville, Utah. From Snowville, we turn west onto Highway 30 to Strevell. The closer we got to the Raft River Mountains the more ominous the clouds became. Lightning flashed and soon rain pounded our SUV. I was nervous because we’d packed our bedding in our SUV’s basket on top of the car and had not covered it and it was now getting soaked. 

We arrived at Clear Creek Campground around 5:30 and met our two younger boys who had stayed at Grandpa’s and then traveled with him earlier in the day. They had set up camp for us and were eating dinner in the tent. They ran to our car and we chatted while we waited for the rain to subside.  It poured for another ten minutes and then let up. Our priority was to check the bedding and get it laid out. I was afraid it would be incredibly soaked, but to my relief, our sleeping bags were only damp inside because of the protective covers. Once I realized we would sleep mostly dry tonight, I finally relaxed and took in the scene. The campground was lovely with aspens, pines, and a fast, flowing creek. There were meadows covered in silver lupine and the friendly yellow faces of yellow arrowroot. Our campsite was next to the creek the rushing stream lured me to sleep and I slept soundly even in a damp sleeping bad.

The next morning, we had Grandpa’s famous pancakes for breakfast, then broke camp. We drove on dirt roads to The City of Rocks.  We passed a small town of Standrod.  Half of the town was in Utah and the other half was in Idaho. After an hour of travel, we made it to the City of Rocks National Reserve.

California Trail Emigrants; Photo courtesy of City of Rocks National Reserve

California Trail emigrants described the area as “a city of tall spires, steeple rocks, and a silent city.” Over 240,000 people traveled the California trail between the years of 1843-1882.  The largest between (1849 and 1869). It was a welcomed landmark on the trail.  Many emigrants wrote their names on the rock in axel grease and some are still visible today. 

Sallie Hester traveled the trail in August of 1849. She wrote, “Took another cutoff this week called Sublets. Struck Raft River from thence to Swamp Creek. Passed some beautiful scenery, high cliffs of rocks resembling old ruins or dilapidated buildings.”

Another emigrant, Bernard J. Reid, thought the rocks were “grotesque.” There were “sphynxes, statues, . . . and so on throughout, a thousand varieties of fantastic shapes.”  You can read more accounts here. https://www.nps.gov/ciro/learn/historyculture/index.htm

We passed the ruins of an old home and I wondered who lived there. While the home is isolated, the valley is so beautiful. I wouldn’t mind waking up to the view every morning. The house is called The Circle Creek Rock house and was built in 1904-1905 by Aaron McBride, a rock mason, and William E. Tracy, a rock layer and house builder. The walls of the home are 18 inches thick allowing for natural insolation to keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  Tracy lived there with his family for 5 years.

We loved exploring the Emigrant Rock and seeing all the names of pioneers. It was sad that others have put graffiti on it over the years.  We then drove to our campsite. We stayed in campsite number 59. It was isolated and beautiful, but very inconvenient as we had to park in the parking lot and then haul our gear a half a mile down the site. There was a road to the campsite, but campers are no longer allowed to use it. (After my fourth trip to the site, I was about to violate that though.) It was a lot of work to get our camp set up, but worth it. We saw a red sap tree sucker in the trees near our camp. He kept chirping at us and coming out to eat more bark of a cedar tree.

After we set up camp, we tried to find an easy rock climb for the boys. City of Rocks attracts rock climbers from all over the world. We explored the Window Rock area, where there was supposedly an easier climb or two, but we could not locate them. We went up a gulley where the dogs couldn’t follow. Grandpa and I tried to find another way to the top with the dogs. I got myself onto some of the large granite rocks and was working my way to the top, but then I slipped and slid about ten feet toward a gulley. I did not know how far the drop off was into the gulley and I was heading straight for it. I clawed my fingers into the rock to find anything to stop my fall. I prayed, “Please Heavenly Father, help me stop. Please.” After my prayer, I did stop about five feet from the edge. I said a prayer of to express my gratitude. I could not get up for a while because I was so shaken up. Grandpa called to me asking me to follow his voice. It was easier when I listened and made my way back to him. I felt strengthened. The process sounded familiar to my spirit.

We eventually met up and tried the climbs at another location. Everyone climbed but me. I already had my adventure for the day. After we climbed for a while, we tried to find a place where Grandpa could use his trailer to cook us dinner. The parking lot next to our campsite was very windy and it was next to the group camp site, so it was not ideal. We went to Emery Pass picnic area. It was near a grove of quaking aspen trees with a small creek running through it. It was a lovely spot and we spotted a mountain blue jay on one of the branches. Grandpa grilled us some plump, juicy burgers and served it with refreshing watermelon. It was a delicious end to the day. After dinner, Grandpa said he needed to return home because he wasn’t feeling well. He may have been too long in the sun. We hated to see him go, but we also understand he isn’t as young as he once was. Time goes by to fast and we must enjoy each moment we have with him.

Aaron and I hiked back to our campsite from the picnic area and then we hiked around the rock at around our campsite and built a fire. We tried to play Phase 10, but we only had half the cards.  We decided to go to bed a bit early. As we were preparing for bed, we heard the hoot of a Great Horned Owl and went out of the tent in time to see it being driven away by smaller birds.

In the morning, we explored the many crevices and layers of Treasure Rock. We did not go to the top of the rock as it was covered in swallows’ nests and the parents weren’t too happy about us getting close to their babies.

View of the valley from Treasure Rock

We decided to travel home through Almo and Elba. Alba was established in 1881. People believed it was a part of Utah, but they were around a post office in 1881. By 1900, the town had a store, a post office, a school, a brass band, a theatrical group, three saloons, and a welfare society. Population reached a large 260 by 1920. We visited the City of Rocks National Reserve Visitor’s Center. A ranger was outside with gloves on and a mask. You could purchase some of the maps on the outside and the center was open but only a few people could go in at a time to follow social distancing.

The town had a beautiful inn and restaurant called Almo Inn that looked like an old west town. It would be fun to stay there some time. There was also a mercantile called the Tracy General Store but is wasn’t open. I will put it on the list for next time.

We then drove north to Elba. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were the first to settle here in the 1870’s.  In 1887, the women formed a relief society organization and a man named John Darrington donated land for them to build their own hall. They raised money and completed the hall in 1902. The building is now owned and used as a community center.

Elba Relief Society Building, now a community center

We loved exploring City of Rocks and will probably come again soon. There are hikes to go on and so many more rock climbing routes. It was another successful Adventure with Grandpa.


Published by Karen Painter

Karen Painter is a freelance real estate/health writer and historical romance author. She has written blogs, news,and feature articles for different publications over her twenty year writing career. Despite her struggles with anxiety and depression, she works hard to be positive and uplifting to others. She loves hiking, singing, and traveling.

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