City of Rocks National Preserve

City of Rocks was one big surprise detour. We found out about this place while we were drinking beers at the gear shop outside of Smith Rocks in Oregon. A couple of Idahoan climbers recommended we stop by on our way through. And holy smokes were we happy that we stopped.

City of Rocks National Preserve sits just north of the Utah border just outside a sleepy little town called Almo. The Preserve belongs to the ancestral lands of the Paiute and Shoshone Native American Tribes.

“The City”, as the locals call it, is one of those places where you constantly question your decision to go there until you see the place for the first time. After turning south from Highway 84,  the countryside was rolling, if not flat, and dominated by cattle. We were certain there would be no rocks to climb for thousands of miles. And then out of nowhere, after coming around the bend, your first glimpse of granite domes, buttresses, and erratic boulders smack you in the face with a welcoming sensation of excitement.

As we got closer, we couldn’t help but begin to imagine all the fun we would be having over the next couple of days. But until then, we had to find a campsite to sleep in before the sunset over the western mountains.  We found a little patch of public land, positioned the van in a flat spot, and bedded down for the night.

Driving into the City the following day blew our socks off. We were quickly surrounded by incredibly attractive granitic extrusions. The area was very reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park. We followed the dirt road as it meandered through the boulders and towers and eventually settled on an area called Parking Lot Rock.

Due to the chillier weather forecast, we enjoyed an almost solitary morning of climbing. There were just a handful of parties willing to brave the temperatures. We were only a stone’s throw away from the van. So at lunch, I jogged back to the van to grab some extra lunch luxuries to boost our otherwise slimmed-down picnic lunch. In the sun, the rock was warm. But snow still sat in the shadier and north-facing nooks and crannies of the rocks.

The climbing was excellent.  The featured slabs and vertical cracks offered a ton of interesting and thought-provoking movement. Whitney and I were consistently impressed by the quality of the stone, the variety of features, and the involved route-finding.

In rock climbing, route-finding involves “reading” the rock in order to piece together a sequence that allows you to ascend the rock. Sometimes, there are a variety of solutions that allow you passage up the cliff face. Other times, there is only one solution to the puzzle. In some climbing areas, you can gather hints for how to read the route by the leftover chalk (used to enhance friction and decrease sweating on your hands) from previous climbers. But in quieter areas like the City, there is not much chalk to draw information from. In my opinion, this enhances the climbing and allows for a more genuine experience.

If we had left after day one, we would have climbed numerous, world-class routes. Little did I know that day two was going to be even better. After climbing a few routes, Whitney decided to rest for the day and just continue belaying me. So, together with my loyal belayer and chaotic puppy dog, I trampled off in search of a few harder classic lines. What we found was beyond good.

My favorite route was Redtail, a 150-foot route boasting a mixture of thin, technical, and balance-dependent movements. Intermixed within the cryptic route finding were steeper sections with sculpted holds and airy exposure. It was one of those routes that kept me focused and entertained until the very last second. Between the harder sections were good rests where I could catch my breath, calm my heart rate and sneak glances at the wonderful views all around me. As my feet touched the ground after rappelling and cleaning the route, I was dumbfounded by what I just accomplished.

On our third night in the City of Rocks, we decided to stay in the campground instead of on the outskirts of the Preserve. It wasn’t free, but it was very worth it. The campsites were well crafted. There were picnic tables, fire rings, and tent platforms on every site. The sites themselves were tucked in between boulders, on cliffsides with expansive views, and within aspen groves. Whitney and I found a wonderful site and made it just in time to enjoy the sunset.

The following morning, we were able to walk to the formations we wanted to climb. It was a bitterly cold day with an intense wind chill. We easily could have decided to leave but my stubbornness made our stay. I just couldn’t leave without another day of climbing. So we put on extra layers and went out in search of sunny routes with decent wind protection.

By midday our fingers were numb and our faces were wind-blasted. But I was very grateful to have climbed a few extra routes before leaving town. As we skedaddled back to Sage, I couldn’t help myself from stopping periodically and stealing glances at all the rocks we had yet to climb. I was like a kid in a candy shop that did not want to leave. I knew we would be back someday.

Fortunately for me, more rock climbing was in my near future. So I reluctantly caught up to Whitney (who was walking with conviction so as to move me along faster before I could try to sneak in another climb) and jumped into the warm van as the wind blew the door shut behind me.

With our fingers coming back to life and our ears ringing from the wind, we readied the car and began the slow drive out of the City of Rocks. Our original plan was to continue East into Wyoming so we could see the Grand Tetons. But a large, late-winter storm was in the forecast and we were concerned about the arrival of new snow and freezing temperatures.

So in a last-minute decision, we headed due South for Salt Lake City and beyond. Once again, just like at the beginning of our trip, our eyes were set on the friendlier weather that was to be found in the desert. Moab in particular was calling us.

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