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Camping at City of Rocks National Reserve

After 17 summers attending and working at various scout camps, Brett said he had done his fair share of sleeping in a tent—a stance that my little camping-obsessed heart was determined to overcome. Still, when he voluntarily used some of his vacation to go camping in Stanley last year, I thought for sure it was a one time deal. But apparently not: this spring, he suggested maybe we could go camping again this summer. Is it too soon to call this a new tradition? I sure hope not… 

This year’s campsite of choice was at City of Rocks National Reserve, a landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind camping experience with breathtaking views, City of Rocks might be just the right place for you.

History

City of Rocks is aptly named: the 14,407 acre reserve is filled with outcroppings of granite, gneiss, and schist lined with intrusions of igneous rock. (Sorry, is my geology nerd showing?) The oldest granite in the reserve is estimated to be more than 2.5 billion years old. For thousands of years, the area was home to the Shoshone and Paiute nations, and it remains a culturally significant space for local tribes to this day. Then, between 1849 and 1869, emigrants on the California Trail made camp in the reserve, leaving their names scrawled on some of the rock faces in axle grease.

After almost a hundred years of primarily being used for ranching, City of Rocks started catching the eye of recreational visitors. The area was designated as a state park in 1957, then a national reserve in 1988. Today, it is actually managed as both, and 80,000 people visit the park each year.

What to Do

With all that rock, City of Rocks National Reserve has become a mecca of sorts for rock climbers. More than 700 routes have been established within the confines of the park, and nearly everyone we saw was there to climb. They even have a message board at the Bath Rock parking lot where you can connect with new climbing buddies.

But if, like us, you are not climbers, there are still plenty of things to explore. Hiking trails are available for a variety of skill and fitness levels. We explored the Creekside Towers trail from the Window Rock trailhead by Parking Lot Rock (yes, that’s actually what it’s called), and thoroughly enjoyed the flora, fauna, and geology we saw along the trail. Biking is another popular way to explore the reserve, and equestrians can bring their horses if they want to get a taste of the actual California Trail.

Camping in City of Rocks

One of the fun details about the park is that most campsites have rock features right next to where you’ll pitch your tent. (You can actually see photos of each campsite on the park’s website.) If you’re a climber, that means that you can wake up in the morning and start climbing before breakfast. And despite having 69 standard campsites and 3 group sites, the rocks give enough privacy that it’s easy to feel like you almost have the whole place to yourself. 

There are also a handful of campsites that don’t have rock features in camp. We opted for a site that had more trees, and it was lovely. In fact, our site was so well-hidden that we had to ask other campers if they happened to know where it was. (Thankfully, they did!) We had a short walk from our parking spot to the campite, but it was well worth it for the privacy afforded us by the aspen and cedar trees that sheltered our site. And it was easy to pop out of the trees when we needed another glimpse of the beautiful landscape around us. 

A few things to know for your trip: 

  • There are no walk-in campsites available in the reserve. Your site must be booked in advance at Reserve America.
  • City of Rocks is a trash free park. Be prepared to take your trash home with you—or you can find trash cans at the Visitor’s Center in Almo. 
  • About 1/4 of the reserve is privately owned, and there are free range cattle in the area. There are cattle guards at the entrance, but they’re not always effective at keeping cows out. Maisie alerted us to some bovine visitors in our campsite one morning! 
  • Pets are welcome in the reserve, but must be kept on a leash at all times. 
  • If you find yourself in need of more firewood, you can get some for $6 from a self-serve station at City of Rocks RV on the way to Almo. They accept cash or Venmo. (Always check fire conditions and make sure there are not active burn bans in effect.)

Helpful Apps

Most people won’t have cell coverage in the park (honestly not a bad thing), but the National Parks Service has a free app that can be used offline for maps and information. Just make sure to install it and download the offline info before you visit the park. We used it extensively for finding cool rock features and hiking trails and learning about the history of the area. 

I also learned that my two favorite nature ID apps work offline as well! I used the free Merlin and Seek apps to identify a bunch of new-to-me plants and animals, and both apps worked fine as long as my phone was in airplane mode. 

Have you been to City of Rocks? I’d love to hear about your adventures!  Share your stories in the comments below.

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Jess Friedman
Jess is a Canadian-American who’s always ready for the next adventure. She loves all things living, always has a million creative projects in progress, and polishes her nerd badge daily. She is passionate about helping families make and preserve treasured memories that strengthen bonds across generations. You can read more posts by Jess here.

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2 Responses

  1. I went camping and climbing there in 2007 as a senior in high school and had so much fun! I did my first multi- pitch climb on that camp out. All with a sprained knee in a brace that the doctor told me to take it easy on! I would love to go visit again.

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