Tuesday, August 9, 2011

City of Rocks National Preserve, Idaho

Dolphins and whales leaping from a blue-green sage colored ocean. Huge, gray elephants lumbering across velvety green slopes. A tiny cirque, high up on the distant hills, is all that remains of the winter's snow, and a few wildflowers dot the plain. That's the scene here in City of the Rocks National Preserve. 

Well, the critters may be imaginary, but the forms are real. These giant gray granite outcrops certainly inspire those images. 

Saturday we drove west, through the park, admiring the formations and checking out the named boulders.

There's Camp Rock, where travelers found protection from the winds, Treasure Rock, that supposedly marks a huge buried treasure, and Elephant Rock, inspired I'm sure by the effect of the gray boulders on the plain.

After all the red sandstone we've seen, these gray granite outcrops seem such a contrast. And they come as a surprise after the drive through the rolling wheat fields of southern Idaho. Although all the formations appear at first to be made of the same type of stone there are actually three different materials involved in creating this amazing landscape.

One, the Green Creek Complex consists of granite formed around 2.5 billion years ago.  This type has a high mica content and glitters in the sun like diamonds. The second, the Elba Quartzite originated during the Proterozoic Eon a mere 15,000 to 600 million years ago. This stone is much lighter than the Green Creek granite, and also has mineral stains causing red and green streaks and layers. The third type is the Almo Pluton, granite, formed by the slow cooling of magma, makes up most of the spires in the City of Rocks. (More about the geology of the area here.)
The Twin Sisters formation is interesting because the left peak, of the Twin Sisters, is made up of rock from the Green Creek Complex (2.5 billion years old), and the right peak is made up of rock from the Almo Pluton (28 million years old). Some birthing process!

This preserve is notable not only for the geology, but for the pioneer history, as the California Trail (companion to the famous Oregon Trail) passed right through the center of the park.

Register Rock records some of the names and dates. Many more were written there, but have long since faded due to weathering. Only those protected by the overhang of the boulder remain legible.

Turning east there's a view of the smooth plain the wagons crossed to get to this point. Its grassy, and looks like easy going. Turning west, the view is only broken rocks and steep slopes. One can only imagine what thoughts the pioneers had at this point about the challenges lay ahead. The ground is solid with small boulders, and the granite spires crowd each other, often leaving little space to get a wagon and team through.

 The stone ruins still standing beside the road mark one of the locations where the California Trail crossed the current road. Originally settled in 1882 under the 1862 Homestead Act, the land was sold in 1901and patented under the Desert Land Act. The combined acreage formed the nucleus of the Circle Creek Ranch. The Tracy's spent years constructing a substantial stone house to replace their log dwelling. The stone used in the construction of the home is from a quarry located about one mile southwest of the home site. The home burned in 1957. (A nice driving tour brochure that includes many of the historic and scenic points is available here.)

Today's adventuresome types come to this area not as pioneers, but as rock climbers. Though the state park campground we are in, Smoky Mountain, is very sparsely populated, the boondocking camps out in the bushes, near the climbing rocks, are swarming with people. Each of the cracks and crevices seems to have a name, relevant to the climbers, and there clear signs directing people to the base of the formation where the way up begins. Many of the parking areas around picnic areas and climbing sites were full today, when we drove through the park. I can't imagine what it must be like here during the spring, which is the peak season. 

At the edge of the park we went north to the little town of Oakley. The town has less than 600 residents, and their main claim to fame is a historic section with a few really nice Victorian homes.

One of the major industries in the area is stone quarry products, and there are several stone dealers around to prove it. I wish I could get some of this back to Texas! They have some really attractive types in the display areas.

Once back in camp we noticed the storm clouds gathering. This seems to be a regular afternoon thing. Big, billowy white clouds suddenly turn dark, then the thunder starts, and then a few sprinkles. This was a bit more lively than the day before, though. With a little hail and a lot of wind thrown in. We battened down the hatches, so to speak, so we wouldn't have to worry about things and took off for the nearby town of Almo to have dinner. We don't eat out much, so having someone else do the cooking is quite a treat. We went to the Outpost Inn, a nice little steakhouse type restaurant. Good food, and some interesting Native American items decorating the place.

Our big outing on Sunday was a drive to the state park right next to City of Rocks. Castle Rocks State Park is much smaller than the national park, but much the same in appearance. It's also popular with climbers, and it's probably to them that we owe the great cell service in this area, as well as the fact that our campground has wireless.
Smokey Mountain campground, where we are staying, is actually part of the state park, though it's separated by a couple of miles. It's a really well designed campground. The spaces are wide, level, and very private, and there are a couple of yurts available for those without an RV. There's also an equestrian section that includes holding pens for horses and plenty of room for stock trailers. Showers, recycling centers, full hook-ups, and a thunderstorm every afternoon at 3:00. The spaces are surrounded with sage, yarrow, juniper and pine that send out heavenly aromas when the afternoon showers hit. What more could anybody want?

Well, actually, I could want better signage. When we arrived at the park we noticed a sign at the edge of the parking lot with a list of things we might see there, but no arrows or directions, and the world's dinkiest map was posted for reference, so after a lot of hiking around in circles we finally found what we were looking for - some very faint pictographs! See the notes in the photo album if you are interested in tracking them down.

The ranch house that is part of the park is now an inn of sorts, and so not open to anyone who is not a guest of the inn. It's a cute little building, but we don't know anything about it, as there was no information available at the park.

A single visitor's center, in Almo, serves both parks. You can get brochures and shop for gift items there. There's also a mercantile and another food and misc. items store in Almo, so if you forget something you can probably pick it up there.

Another storm came up late in the day, and this time brought a double rainbow over the valley. The perfect finish to a perfect day!

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