American Indians in the City of Rocks
At the northern periphery of the Great Basin, the area surrounding City of Rocks was home to Shoshone, Paiute, and their ancestors for thousands of years. At the end of the Pleistocene humans moved across the continental United States, following game animals as the ice sheets began to recede. These melting ice sheets left large pluvial lakes in their wakes that covered vast areas of the Great Basin such as Lake Bonneville that encompassed the Great Salt Lake and that stretched into what is now southern Idaho.
The California Trail Era
Although there may have been some visitation to the area by Europeans and Americans during the fur trade and exploration-era, the establishment of the California Trail through the City of Rocks is what brought the first significant number of European-Americans to what is now the Reserve. Emigrants following trails created by American Indians and trappers, crossed the continent in search of a better life, spurred on by Manifest Destiny. Approximately 240,000 people made their way west on the overland trails, primarily between the time when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, and when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 .
The City of Rocks National Reserve is a National Historic Landmark associated with the mass overland westward migration. Emigrants traveling the California Trail would reach Circle Creek in the City of Rocks and nooned or camped. Some of these emigrants left their names on the rocks along the trail within the Reserve. In the southern portion of the Reserve, the Salt Lake Alternate Trail merged with the California Trail, where emigrants traveling from Salt Lake City would continue west. The Salt Lake Alternate Trail was first documented in 1847 by Mormon Battalion soldiers who were headed to Salt Lake after the Mexican-American war in California.
The Boise Kelton Stage Route
Following the decline in overland travel after the establishment of the transcontinental railroad, the Salt Lake Alternate Trail was used as a stage route, connecting the railroad in Kelton, Utah with Idaho's mining hub in Boise. The track supplied early economic development throughout Idaho, which won statehood in 1890. The route passed through the City of Rocks, where a stage station was set up near the junction of the California Trail and Salt Lake Alternate Trail.
Between 1910 and 1919 there were 29 land patents filed within the area that would later become City of Rocks National Reserve. Nineteen of these were dry land farms; however, due to poor soil and water availability these farms were abandoned by the 1920s. Later these areas were used primarily as rangeland for cattle and sheep. To this day, ranchers use land surrounding the Reserve for grazing cattle.
Recreation and tourism in City of Rocks started to take hold in the Reserve in the 1960s. Early recreation in the area consisted of visiting the historic signatures and unique rocks. Later, when rock climbers from Utah discovered the granite spires it changed the entire course of the Reserve’s future. With more recreationalists climbing and camping, it became clear by the 1980s that management was needed to help protect the historic and natural resources within City of Rocks. In 1988, Congress designated City of Rocks as a Reserve and granted joint management to the National Park Service and Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.
Resources for Researchers
When emigrants reached City of Rocks on the California Trail they were inspired! Many left entries in their journals about the unique sights they encountered. Click here to read some of those journal entries.
City of Rocks National Reserve preserves 22 rocks within the California Trail corridor that have emigrant signatures. The reserve maintains a database of signatures for many of the rocks; please contact the cultural resources department (208-824-5915) if you would like to check if a name is in the database.
Last updated: September 22, 2023