We’re ecstatic to be returning to the City of Rocks National Reserve (CoRNR) in southern Idaho. We first partnered with the City of Rocks National Reserve in 2021 for a successful project. Most folks haven’t heard of City of Rocks, however, it’s fairly accessible from some major metros: a 2.75-hour drive away from Salt Lake City, UT, a whisper over a 3-hour drive away from Boise, ID, and a 7.5-hour drive from Reno, NV.

The City of Rocks is clad in granite spires and is adjacent to Castle Rocks State Park. During the 1840s and 1850s, wagon trains on the California Trail left the Raft River valley and traveled through the area and over Granite Pass into Nevada. Names or initials of emigrants written in axle grease are still visible on Register Rock, and ruts from wagon wheels can be seen in some of the rocks.

In the 1980s, it was home to some of the most difficult climbing routes in the country, and today, this backcountry byway attracts rock climbers, campers, hikers, hunters, and those with the spirit of adventure. There’s inspirational scenery, exceptional opportunities for geologic study, and remnants of the Old West awaiting your discovery.

We had the chance to speak with Austin Zollinger, a Park Ranger working in Natural Resources at the City of Rocks National Reserve. We wanted to learn more about the City of Rocks National Reserve and why our 2023 project is so important.

1. In your opinion, what makes the City of Rocks National Reserve (CoRNR) a public land space not to miss?
The City of Rocks National Reserve is an extremely unique piece of public land due to the large granite spires that date back billions of years, and it is a biogeographic crossroads where many plants and animals from different ecosystems (the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin) all merge. There are hundreds of climbing routes, over 25 miles of multi-use trails, unique campsites among the granite features, and many other opportunities for wildlife viewing and birding.

2. Can you share some of the challenges CoRNR faces in managing and stewarding?
Some of the challenges we face as staff of the reserve are rearranging camping and visitor access to help protect the cultural and natural resources found in the City of Rocks. In 2020 we saw a huge spike in visitation and current funding and staffing have not caught up to the increase in visitation. Since the reserve contains some of the northernmost pinyon-juniper woodlands, the staff of the reserve has been monitoring the woodlands to record changes in mortality due to climate change.

3. Tell us why this fuels reduction and planting project is important to CoRNR.
The pinyon-juniper woodlands located within the City of Rocks are being impacted severely by naturally occurring beetles and fungus, but experts believe that the underlying cause behind the severity is climate change and drought. Dense pinyon-juniper woodlands have a very small understory so when large-scale die-offs occur there is very little vegetation left. Within the past two years, the park has seen large-scale die-offs along the road in the Circle Creek Basin which pose a huge threat to visitors, wildlife, park infrastructure, and other vegetation of the reserve.

Working with partners from the BLM, USFS, and the NPS Inventory and Monitoring team, we have begun to work to try to restore the landscape back to its original composition while also protecting the visitors. Removing dead pinyon trees, removing cheatgrass, and planting more fire-resistant native perennial bunchgrasses is a critical project identified by those working in and around the reserve.

4. What are your top two favorite sights or things to do at CoRNR?
In my position I manage the Natural Resource program and projects, so I am constantly in parts of the park that most of the public never see. My top two activities in the park are hiking the North Fork Circle Creek trail with my kids and completing wildlife surveys. My top two sights are Steinfell’s dome and Twin Sisters on nights clear of clouds.

5. Anything else to share with the Wilderness Volunteers community?
I have loved working with the volunteers in the past and would love to host one project in
2023. I will lose four seasonal positions going into 2023 so this project will likely not be completed if I don’t receive outside help.

If you’d like to join the 2023 City of Rocks National Reserve project, please visit the project page!