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Exploring The Parks: City Of Rocks National Reserve
There are hybrid cars, hybrid corn, hybrid cattle, so why not a hybrid park? City of Rocks in south central Idaho is one.
City of Rocks National Reserve is part of the National Park System, but there are no NPS personnel there.
Everywhere you look, you’ll see the National Park Service arrowhead nestled alongside the Idaho State Parks shield. I guess I was fooled by all the arrowheads, and so I was surprised to discover that you won’t see a flat hat anywhere up there. It’s entirely an operation of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.
City of Rocks is situated right alongside Castle Rocks State Park, and both parks are administered and operated by the same crew. A full-service RV park, complete with electric and water hookups, flush toilets and showers is located just off the entrance road to “The City.” Camping in The City is more primitive. Most campsites are walk-in and only a few will accommodate RVs.
Besides being a heck of a neat place to camp, The City has long been famous as a climbing Mecca. Climbers from all over the world migrate here to try some granite routes that are said to rival anything Yosemite has to offer – but aren’t as long and don’t require tolerating crowds and traffic jams. The first climbers I met and talked to turned out be a bunch of climbing guides from Jackson Hole. They said they come to The City each spring before snow melts from the Tetons. Gives them a chance to warm up a little.
City of Rocks was also a well known place for emigrants along the California Trail to stop and rest between 1843 and 1882.
The trail ran right through what is now the reserve and there are places where graffiti autographs that were painted on rocks with axle grease by trail travelers are still visible.
CIRO is the only park I know of that is a hybrid bred of NPS and state parents so I decided to go pay a visit to the people who run the place to see what I could learn. Superintendent Wallace Keck was not in the office, but his second in command donated about a half hour of her time to answer questions and provide details. Venna Ward is assistant park manager and member of a local ranching family. It took only a couple of minutes to realize that despite a difference of uniforms, there’s just as much dedication and care devoted to this place as there would be if there’d been an arrowhead patch on her sleeve.
City of Rocks was created in 1988 and is celebrating twenty-five years as a National Reserve this year. Long before its establishment, The City had been famous among climbers. When the proposal came along to try to preserve it, complications arose immediately. Idaho is a western state and many westerners have very strong feelings about the role of the Federal government in their backyards. So Congress was pushed by Idaho’s Congressional delegation and late Senator James McClure to ensure certain protections for the state’s citizens. They demanded that property rights of owners in the area be preserved. They demanded that traditional grazing continue. Hunting was to be permitted – and be governed by Idaho hunting regulations. Property could be purchased only from ranchers who were willing to sell. Most important of all, however, was the requirement that the state would administer the reserve with local management.
In the beginning, the National Park Service played a fairly large role in getting CIRO up and running. At one time, the superintendent of Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument served a dual role and also administered The City. That was phased out several years ago and CIRO is now managed and staffed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation under a cooperative agreement with the Department of the Interior and National Park Service. A series of land exchanges between the state and Federal government helped shape nearby Castle Rocks State Park. For example, the quarry near Hagerman, Idaho upon which the Hagerman horse fossil had been found was on state land. A land swap gave that real estate to the Park Service as part of Hagerman Fossil Beds in trade for BLM land that became Castle Rocks State Park. Castle Rocks is primarily a climbing park with some granite that looks perhaps even more challenging than what’s found in The City.
When CIRO was established as a National Reserve, land ownership was about 50/50 between private owners and the Bureau of Land Management. Now, thanks to willing ranchers and efforts by the NPS Pacific West Region land acquisition team, ownership is now down to about one third private within the reserve’s boundaries.
Mrs. Ward spoke a lot of the intricate financial arrangements for CIRO and it took only a few minutes for my head to begin spinning violently. It’s complicated – just like anything else any government agencies get into. Funding comes from a convoluted arrangement of money from grazing fees collected from ranchers who graze on CIRO lands, from Federal Fee demonstration funds (CIRO does not charge an entry fee, but is one of those areas which receives a portion of its funding from user fees in larger parks), and some state funds. However, given the economic crunches faced by most states these days, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation is being encouraged by Idaho Governor Butch Otter’s office that state parks become self supporting. That, coupled with a previous 5% cut in Federal funding as a result of earlier NPS budget cuts – and a so far unknown effect of sequestration – has managers at CIRO working hard to evaluate and revise park operations. Add to all that the fact that Federal and Idaho fiscal years don’t match up and Superintendent Keck and Assistant Venna Ward have a ready set of built-in challenges to deal with. Trying to navigate all the ups and downs and sideways maneuvers of only one government agency is tough enough. Imagine trying to do it with two! My hat is certainly off to them. There should be some kind of hero’s medal for that.
But if my observations as a visitor are worth anything, it looks like they are managing to do a top notch job. The reserve is in excellent shape. Mrs. Ward mentioned that surveys taken among the 200,000 or so annual visitors to The City and Castle Rocks indicate that visitors want two main objectives to be met: Clean toilets and No “Improvements” in the reserve. They are meeting both of those goals admirably. The Smoky Mountain RV park allows that area to satisfy the desires of those who want modern comforts and The City is for those who don’t. But its pit potties are spotless.
I was especially impressed by two things. First was the park website found on the NPS parent website. I was delighted to find photographs of all the campsites in the reserve so I could snag exactly the right one through ReserveAmerica. (That was the handiwork of some high school interns awhile ago.)
The second was the Climbing Experience Program the state park offers. This gives adults and kids age ten and older an opportunity to try their hands and feet at some basic climbing. For a very modest fee, you can go on belay and get the feel of climbing and rappelling, while learning the basics of equipment, safety and technique. That’s the work of superintendent Keck, visitor services ranger Juanita Jones and climbing ranger Brad Schilling. I didn’t have a chance to meet Schilling, but he sounds like quite a guy.
Besides being CIRO’s climber, he’s also a registered nurse, certified in technical rescue, an EMT, and member of the county’s search and rescue squad.
On the rare occasions when law enforcement is required, there’s a resident Cassia County sheriff’s deputy who lives in Almo. In case there’s a serious violation of Federal law, a ranger from Craters of the Moon is available to assist.
The Park Service helps out in providing most of the heavy equipment needed to maintain the reserve’s roads and trails. In this part of Idaho, even many main roads are well-graded gravel. The two main roads through the reserve are actually county roads which are maintained by Cassia County. That leaves only spur roads to be maintained by the reserve. State park rangers at CIRO/Castle Rocks may also take advantage of training offered by the NPS.
Almo, where CIRO is headquartered, is a tiny town. A church, a little school with only a few students, a general store and post office supplement a handful of comfortable looking houses with well tended yards and gardens. There are probably more horses than people in town. Just south of Almo is another small store with just the basics where I managed to buy their only package of bacon. A new steakhouse and inn are located almost across the street from the visitor center. (By the way, they set a mighty fine table for supper. Don’t skip the pie!) The economic impacts of visitors to the reserve and state park are apparent in those enterprises. Without the reserve and park, this would be just one more peaceful little town where good people work hard trying to make a decent living from the land.
When I asked Mrs. Ward if this is a win-win, she smiled and replied that it probably is. But like anything else, it has disadvantages along with its advantages. Then she added that just about any time there’s a downside, there’s an accompanying upside that offsets it.
From my standpoint, as a long time visitor to The City – my kids learned the basics of climbing there on family campouts long before it became a reserve – it appears that the advantages are playing out in great measure for others like me. While right now the people who keep the place running aren’t exactly sure what might come next from state or Federal finances or political whims, they’re doing all they can to keep The City the world class place it’s always been.
Let’s hope they continue to succeed as political and fiscal storm clouds build on the horizon.