June 8, 2013: I had a free day in Rexburg, ID so I thought I would take a day trip into the heart of Idaho. I visited old nuclear sites, sagebrush filled grasslands, ancient volcanic flows, rugged (and jagged) mountains and riverine landscapes . It was an awesome day of geographic and scenic diversity. Here is my map of the trip:
View Larger Map – Rexburg to the Sawtooths and Salmon River
I decided to leave early so I could catch all of the day’s sunlight. It would be a long day. After heading south to Idaho Falls, I stayed on US 20 west and made my way to the gravel road that leads to the small, nearly ghost town of Atomic City. I had seen earlier reviews on the town on Roadside America. I could see that the content of the article was a bit dated as I made my way into the small town. Atomic City was, at one time, a boom city due to the growth in nuclear research facilities in the area, namely the Idaho National Laboratory and its many secret test facilities in the area.
About 12,000 years ago hunters came to this area for big game such as mammoths, camels and giant bison. Looking at the landscape now, it is difficult to imagine.
The town used to have a store, a bar and a Texaco gas station. The gas station used to house the bar. Both appear to be closed now. In fact, the gas station does not even have the Post Office sign on it any longer. but the vestiges of the old town still remain…
Despite the ghostly appearance of the town, from May thru September the weekends are pretty active here with the Atomic Motor Raceway, which still offers locals the opportunity to race their dwarf karts, minis, modifieds and other stock cars. They had no event the day I was there.
There are some old potato barns and wildflowers that caught my eye in Atomic City as well. A sign that there is still some semblance of life….
I left the town of about 20 people and headed west on US 20/26 towards the town of Arco next.
Along the way there was a nice new Rest Area that had some history included, especially concerning the Nuclear Work in the area.
Arco, Idaho is a town of about 1000 people and is located in Butte County, Idaho. Originally known as Root Hog, the original town site was five miles south at the junction of two stagecoach lines (Blackfoot-Wood River and Blackfoot-Salmon). A suspension bridge that crossed the Big Lost River funneled traffic through the settlement. The town leaders applied to the U.S. Post Office for the town name of “Junction.” However, The Postmaster General thought the name too common and suggested that the place be named Arco for Georg von Arco (1869–1940), an inventor and pioneer in the field of radio transmission, who was visiting Washington, D.C. from his home country of Germany at the time. The town later moved four miles southeast when the stage station was moved to Webb Springs at Big Southern Butte. When the Oregon Short Line railroad arrived from Blackfoot in 1901 the stage lines became obsolete and the town of Arco moved northwest to its present site.
Arco was the first community in the world ever to be lit by electricity generated by nuclear power. This occurred on July 17, 1955, powered by Argonne National Laboratory’s BORAX-III reactor at the nearby National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS), which eventually became the site of the Idaho National Energy Laboratory, a predecessor of the current Idaho National Laboratory.
Arco is also known for “Number Hill”, a butte behind the city with a bunch of numbers on it. History of the hill states that the tradition began with the 1920 graduating class of Butte County High School when they painted a 20 up on the hill. Since that time the tradition has continued with each class adding their years to the hill. There is now even a cafe in town named after it.
A few more scenes from Arco
The USS Hawkbill SSN-666 (also known as the Devil Boat) was launched in 1969 and was decommissioned in 2000. The sail was sent to Arco to be added to the Idaho Science Center, which is housed in Arco.
My next stop on the route was a visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument, one of at least six National Monuments dedicated to volcanoes (see list of National Monuments). Lewis and Clark came across this expansive area of Cinder Cones and Lava Flows in 1805.
Though many had come before, the official name “Craters of the Moon” was coined by Robert Limbert who was the first man to thoroughly explore and promote the area. The name became official in 1924 when the area was established as a National Monument.
The lava flows here were a result of fissure eruptions that would create cinder cones due to the high fluidity of the basalt flows that allowed gasses to escape. Sunset Crater in Arizona is very similar to this.
Lava flows called “aa” are basaltic lava flows characterized by a rough or rubbly surface composed of broken lava blocks called clinker. This is really rough stuff and scary to walk on.
There are a number of Cinder Cones in the park, some of which may be climbed by visitors.
I was very fortunate in my timing in the park as many of the native wildflowers were in bloom. These wildflowers struggle for the little water and naturally space themselves, pretty amazing.
And a few more lava photos…
From the Craters of the Moon I headed down the “Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway” for what I consider to be the real HIGHlight of the trip….
And then passed by Goodale’s Cutoff
The road goes on forever through the lava…much easier today then it was for the emigrants
Carey, Idaho is basically the Gateway to Idaho 75 heading into the Sawtooth Mountains. Actually, Carey is located at the junctions of U.S. Routes 26/93 and 20 and is the commercial center of the Little Wood River Valley. It was founded by a group of Mormon colonists led by Cyrus Joseph Stanford in 1883 who named the town “Marysville.” It was renamed “Carey” with the arrival of his younger brother, Thomas C. Stanford in 1884.
And then onto Idaho 75 and a new scenic byway
I would have to say that this drive was probably one of the more stunning mountain drives I have ever been on. The jagged look (thus Sawtooth) of the range is impressive and awe inspiring.
The first town on ID 75 is Bellevue, Idaho, which is Idaho’s only chartered city. The town was established in March 1882 and currently has a population of about 2300. It is nestled in the foothills at 5.170 feet, before advancing up into the higher altitudes.
Then there are the continuous stream of scrap metal animals, like this bear at a garden shop in Bellevue…
From Bellevue it was north to Hailey and then into the Ketchum/Sun Valley area. From Bellevue the climb began and the mountains north began to look regal and grand.
I arrived in Ketchum around noon. This is a touristy town, obviously with the Sun Valley ski resorts and all of the summer mountain activity. As with many of these kinds of towns, unique art abounds. Here are a few “artsy” things I saw in Ketchum….
The above twig and branch sculpture, called “Centerpiece” was made by artist Patrick Dougherty, a North Carolina artist who works with tree saplings as his medium. This was made in 2010for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, which will be building a new facility on the grounds where Centerpiece stands. Dougherty has over 230 creations on exhibit all over the world. See more of his work here.
And then there are the unique places in town:
The Pioneer Saloon… Or the Commercial Club as it was called originally, was opened in the 1940’s as a gambling casino operated by Otis Hobbs. A few years later the casino was closed and the American Legion then took it over and used it as a meeting hall. For a short time, the building was converted into a dry goods store. In the mid 60’s, the Pioneer was redesigned as a restaurant. The present version of the Pioneer Saloon dates from 1972 — hence the phrase “Where were you in 72.”
From the Ketchum/Sun Valley area I continued north on ID 75 into the mountains. On this day I happened to be heading north while the Sawtooth Relay was in action. I saw runners for miles and thought it was just a marathon. Turns out it is a 62 mile relay race with teams of 6 running from Stanley, ID to Ketchum, ID along ID 75. It is a fund raising event that apparently had over 300 teams in 2013. I saw many of the team vans along the road.
The drive eventually got me to Galena Pass, which is at a little over 8700 feet.
Galena Summit marks the divide between the Big Wood River and Salmon River drainage areas. Just a bit more down the road is the Galena Overlook, which offers an expansive view of the Sawtooth Range to the north and the headwaters of the Salmon River in the Stanley Basin below.
The view from Galena Overlook was awesome. The blue lake in the bottom center will be seen in another photo from lake level as I ended up on that road below in the valley.
Just a small stream here, but turns into a mighty big river as it goes down the hill (which will be seen later in this post)
From this vantage point the rugged Sawtooth Range is clearly in sight….
From this area, as I ventured further north, I came to the Sawtooth City historical marker and then into the area around the crystal clear Alturas Lake.
The scenery from here was awe-inspiring as many of the views of the snow covered peaks also offered scenic carpets of flower covered meadows.
I continued north towards Redfish Lake and then into Stanley. I wanted to stop at Redfish Lake, but my time was running short. But the scenery was amazing…
Stanley, Idaho….I could SOOOO move here (in the summer at least). Stanley is is the hub point for three different Scenic Byways (The Sawtooth, the Ponderosa Pine and the Salmon River). It sits in a valley surrounded by mountains at a little over 6200 feet in elevation. It is a town with a number of small resorts/motels and a couple of places to eat. Wikipedia says the population in 2010 was 63, but it appeared to be closer to 200 to me.
It had been a long day so far and I was hungry, so I stopped in at the Mountain Village Express (part of the Mountain Village Resort) to find something to eat. Turns out they make breakfast all day and an omelet sounding appealing!!
Perhaps one of the most scenic photos I have ever taken….
I hated to leave Stanley, but I had to begin the winding descent along the Salmon River back into Rexburg. I went through Lower Stanley and then followed the Salmon River Scenic Byway. At first it was still rugged mountains and a raging river, enticing to rafters and kayakers (and probably bears too…)
The mountains soon began to fade away in the background as a more desertish/volcanic landscape. Nonetheless, this was rugged country full of deep gorges, steep hills and to me was reminiscent of western movie scenes.
As I approached the historical marker above, there was a County Sheriff taking radar. It is a downhill road and Clayton is on the county line. I stopped for a couple of photos and a small chit-chat with the sheriff who told me that Clayton is practically a ghost town. The sign above says it all!
As I hit US Route 93 from ID 75, I headed southeast towards Mackay, ID on US 93. To my excitement the mountains were not all gone. Indeed, I headed toward a new set range of mountains and drove through some pretty spectacular canyons as I entered the Grand View Canyon then out into the Lost River Valley which then opens up to an awesome view of the Lost River Mountain Range, which is home to the 9 highest peaks in Idaho.
Mount Borah is the highest mountain in Idaho at 12,667 feet and one of the most prominent peaks in the contiguous states. This mountain was named for William E. Borah, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1907 until 1940. A major earthquake fracture in October 1983 that was 26 miles long and 7 miles deep surfaced forcing the Lost River Valley to slide away from Mt. Borah. The valley subsided 9 feet after the quake.
Funny thing — along the way I came across a fence about 40 yards or more covered with boots and shoes….
Continuing south on US 93 i rolled into the small town of Mackay (prounounced MacKee locally).
Mackay is home to the Mackay Mine Hill which still allows tours, some of them apparently pretty grueling.
I made my way down US 93 back thru Arco and then to US 26/20 until the junction with Idaho 33, where I then proceeded east back towards Rexburg thru the small town of Howe.
This was a 13 hour road trip with an amazing diversity of scenery, geography and landscapes. Probably one of the more amazing day trips I have ever taken to this point in terms of variety and excitement. I really could have spent three days doing this and really digging in deeper. Maybe next time….