A Day Drive in Central Idaho: Volcanoes, Mountains and Rivers

Teepee in Stanley, ID
Teepee in Stanley, ID

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.

US 20 west out of Idaho Falls
US 20 west out of Idaho Falls
Land of Elephant Hunters
Land of Elephant Hunters

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.

Big Butte, Idaho
Big Butte, Idaho
Three Buttes Site
Three Buttes Site
Sagebrush and mountains near Atomic City
Sagebrush and mountains near Atomic City
Gravel Road to Atomic City
Gravel Road to Atomic City
Atomic City, ID
Atomic City, ID

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…

Old bar sign by the old Texaco Station
Old bar sign by the old Texaco Station
Old Twin Buttes Cafe
Old Twin Buttes Cafe

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.

Atomic Motor Raceway, Atomic City, ID
Atomic Motor Raceway, Atomic City, ID

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….

Potato Barns
Sod Roof Potato Barns in Atomic City
Wildflowers in Atomic City
Wildflowers in Atomic City

I left the town of about 20 people and headed west on US 20/26 towards the town of Arco next.

US Routes 20/26
US Routes 20/26
Twin Buttes near Atomic City as seen heading west to Arco, ID
Twin Buttes near Atomic City as seen heading west to Arco, ID
Sawtooth Range n the Distance
Sawtooth Range in the Distance

Along the way there was a nice new Rest Area that had some history included, especially concerning the Nuclear Work in the area.

Nuclear Reactor sign
Nuclear Reactor sign
Nuclear Reactors info
Nuclear Reactors info
The Road to Arco, ID
The Road to Arco, ID

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.

Downtown Arco, Idaho
Downtown Arco, Idaho

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, Idaho City Hall
Arco, Idaho City Hall – First City to be powered by Nuclear Energy
Historical Sign in Arco
Historical Sign in Arco

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.

Number Hill - Arco, ID
Number Hill – Arco, ID
Number Hill Grill - Arco, ID
Number Hill Grill – Arco, ID
Number Hill Grill
Number Hill Grill

A few more scenes from Arco

Submarine Sail of USS Hawkbill
Submarine Sail of USS Hawkbill

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.

Pickles Place - Home of the "Atomic Burger"
Pickles Place – Home of the “Atomic Burger”
EAT sign at Pickle's Place in Arco, ID
EAT sign at Pickle’s Place in Arco, ID
Wall Mural in Arco, ID
Wall Mural in Arco, ID
The DK Motel - found a motel named after me
The DK Motel – found a motel named after me!!

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.

The road to Craters of the Moon
The road to Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon Entrance
Craters of the Moon Entrance
Craters of the Moon sign with mountains in background
Craters of the Moon sign with mountains in background

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.

Expansive views of the lava flows
Expansive views of the lava flows

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.

Blocky aa Lava Flow
Blocky aa Lava Flow

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.

Lava monoliths in the Devil's Orchard section of the park
Lava monoliths in the Devil’s Orchard section of the park
Devil's Orchard
Devil’s Orchard
Basalt Flows
Basalt Flows
Green in the lava flows
Green in the lava flows

There are a number of Cinder Cones in the park, some of which may be climbed by visitors.

Hiking a cinder cone
Hiking a cinder cone
Flows and hills
Flows and hills

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.

Fields of Yellow
Fields of Yellow
Arrowleaf Balsamroot
Arrowleaf Balsamroot
Arrowleaf Balsamroot
Arrowleaf Balsamroot
Larkspur
Larkspur
Larkspur closeup
Larkspur closeup
Delicate Yellow Wood Sorrel
Delicate Yellow Wood Sorrel
Dwarf Buckwheat
Dwarf Buckwheat – amazed with pink and white – blooms are smaller than a dime
Pink Wildflowers
Pink Wildflowers
Who knows?
Who knows?

And a few more lava photos…

Green in the Lava
Green in the Lava
Lava, trees and mountains
Lava, trees and mountains

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….

Peaks to Craters Scenic byway
Peaks to Craters Scenic byway

And then passed by Goodale’s Cutoff

Goodale's Cutoff
Goodale’s Cutoff

The road goes on forever through the lava…much easier today then it was for the emigrants

US 20 heading to Idaho 75 and Carey, ID
US 20 heading to Idaho 75 and Carey, ID
Welcome to Carey, Idaho
Welcome to Carey, Idaho

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.

Farm tractor on highway in Carey, ID
Farm tractor on highway in Carey, ID
Dino sighting in Carey, ID
Dino sighting in Carey, ID
Mountains as seen from Carey, ID
Mountains as seen from Carey, ID

And then onto Idaho 75 and a new scenic byway

Sawtooth Scenic Byway
Sawtooth 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.

First Look at the Sawtooth Range peeking out over the foothills
First Look at the Sawtooth Range peeking out over the foothills
First Stop - Bellevue, ID - Gateway to the Sawtooths
First Stop – Bellevue, ID – Gateway to the Sawtooths

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.

Coke Ad on Bellevue Wall
Coke Ad on Bellevue Wall
Antelope Mural, Bellevue, ID
Antelope Mural, Bellevue, ID
Old Truck with Old Gasoline Ads
Old Truck with Old Gasoline Ads
Old Cabin in Downtown Bellevue, ID
Old Cabin in Downtown Bellevue, ID
Original Bellevue City Hall - Now the Old City Hall Museum
Original Bellevue City Hall – Now the Old City Hall Museum – unique building

Then there are the continuous stream of scrap metal animals, like this bear at a garden shop in Bellevue…

Scrap Metal Bear - Bellevue, ID
Scrap Metal Bear – Bellevue, ID

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.

Sawtootsh from ID 75 north of Hailey, ID
Sawtooths from ID 75 north of Hailey, ID

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….

Straw building in Ketchum, ID
“Centerpiece” by Patrick Dougherty in Ketchum, ID

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.

Unique Sculpture
Unique Sculpture – Ketchum, Idaho
Moose! Yet another one for the collection. This one in Ketchum, Idaho
Moose! Yet another one for the collection. This one in Ketchum, Idaho

And then there are the unique places in town:

Pioneer Saloon - Ketchum, Idaho
Pioneer Saloon – Ketchum, Idaho

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.”

Gnome on a Bike - loved this graphic on a bike shop in Ketchum
Gnome on a Bike – loved this graphic on a bike shop in Ketchum

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.

Mountains and Runners - The Sawtooth Relay 2013
Mountains and Runners – The Sawtooth Relay 2013
More Mountain Views - with runners...
More Mountain Views – with runners…

The drive eventually got me to Galena Pass, which is at a little over 8700 feet.

Sawtooth Mountains heading north in ID 75
Boulder Mountains heading north in ID 75
More of the Boulder Mountains heading north in ID 75
More of the Boulder Mountains heading north in ID 75
Boulder Mountains heading north in ID 75
Boulder Mountains heading north in ID 75
Sign at Galena Pass, Idaho
Sign at Galena Pass, Idaho

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.

View from Galena Overlook
View from Galena Overlook

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.

Sawtooth Range as seen from Galena OVerlook
Sawtooth Range as seen from Galena Overlook

DSC_8726

Bottom of the Stanley Basin. Lake from ground level
Bottom of the Stanley Basin. Lake from ground level
Salmon River source
Salmon River source

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)

The beginnings of the Salmon River
The beginnings of the Salmon River
Antelope hanging around the source of the Salmon River near Vienna
Antelope hanging around the source of the Salmon River near Vienna

 

Vienna, Idaho
Vienna, Idaho

From this vantage point the rugged Sawtooth Range is clearly in sight….

Sawtooth Range as seen from Vienna
Sawtooth Range as seen from Vienna

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.

Sawtooth City, Idaho
Sawtooth City, Idaho

 

Fun chain saw carving near Sawtooth City
Fun chain saw carving near Sawtooth City

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.

Flower Covered Meadows near Sawtooth City, ID
Flower Covered Meadows near Sawtooth City, ID
Alturas Lake in the Sawtooth Valley, ID
Alturas Lake in the Sawtooth Valley, ID

 

Fishing on Alturas Lake
Fishing on Alturas Lake
Kayaking on Alturas Lake
Kayaking on Alturas Lake
Mountains as seen on the road near Alturas Lake
Mountains as seen on the road near Alturas Lake

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…

Sawtooth Mountains near Redlake
Sawtooth Mountains near Redlake
Jagged Sawtooths near Stanley, ID
Jagged Sawtooths near Stanley, ID
Welcome to Stanley, Idaho
Welcome to Stanley, Idaho

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.

Hello from Stanley - with the Sawtooths in the background
Hello from Stanley – with the Sawtooths in the background
Cabin in Stanley, Idaho
Cabin in Stanley, Idaho
Scene from Stanley, Idaho
Scene from Stanley, Idaho
Filling up the Married Up Mobile with mountains in the background
Filling up the Married Up Mobile with mountains in the background

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!!

Mountain Village Express interior
Mountain Village Express interior
My Lunch - an omelet at Mountain Village Express in Stanley
My Lunch – an omelet at Mountain Village Express in Stanley
Hotel in Stanley, Idaho?
Motel in Stanley, Idaho?

Perhaps one of the most scenic photos I have ever taken….

The Sawtooths as seen from Lower Stanley, Idaho
The Sawtooths and the Salmon River as seen from Lower Stanley, Idaho
Teepee in Stanley, ID
Teepee in Stanley, ID

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…)

Scene along the Salmon River byway
Scene along the Salmon River Scenic Byway
Salmon River Scenic Byway
Salmon River Scenic Byway
The Salmon River surges
The Salmon River surges
Some rafters enjoy the ride on the Salmon River
Some rafters enjoy the ride on the Salmon River
Raging Rapids on the Salmon
Raging Rapids on the Salmon

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.

One of many chasms along the Salmon River
One of many chasms along the Salmon River
Slippery lava slopes on the Salmon River Scenic Byway
Slippery lava slopes on the Salmon River Scenic Byway
Old cabins and flowery meadow along the Salmon River Scenic Byway
Old cabins and flowery meadows along the Salmon River Scenic Byway
Multi-Colored views along the Salmon River Scenic Byway
Multi-Colored views along the Salmon River Scenic Byway
Clayton Smelter
Clayton Smelter
Clayton, Idaho - Population 7
Clayton, Idaho – Population 7

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!

Old wagons seen near Challis,ID
Old wagons at Land of Yankee Fork Interpretive Center seen near Challis, ID
Old mining equipment at Land of Yankee Fork Interpretive Center near Challis, ID
Old mining equipment at Land of Yankee Fork Interpretive Center near Challis, ID
Colorful buttes near Challis, ID
Colorful buttes near Challis, ID

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.

Grandview Canyon on US 93 - northern section of the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway
Grandview Canyon on US 93 – northern section of the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway
Lost River Mountains, Idaho
Lost River Mountains, Idaho
Mount Borah as seen from Willow Creek Summit, Elev 7160 feet
Mount Borah as seen from Willow Creek Summit, Elev 7160 feet

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.

Driving towards Mt. Borah, Idaho's highest peak
Driving towards Mt. Borah, Idaho’s highest peak
Lost River Mountains, Idaho
Lost River Mountains, Idaho

Funny thing — along the way I came across a fence about 40 yards or more covered with boots and shoes….

Boot Fence near Mount Borah
Boot Fence near Mount Borah
Boot Fence with Mount Borah in background
Boot Fence with Mount Borah in background

Continuing south on US 93 i rolled into the small town of Mackay (prounounced MacKee locally).

Welcome to Mackay, Idaho
Welcome to Mackay, Idaho
Downtown Mackay, Idaho
Downtown Mackay, Idaho
Mine Hill Grill, Mackay, Idaho - home of the "World Famous Burnt Lemonade"
Mine Hill Grill, Mackay, Idaho – home of the “World Famous Burnt Lemonade”

Mackay is home to the Mackay Mine Hill which still allows tours, some of them apparently pretty grueling.

More slow tractors - started the day off with one...ending the day with another. This is Idaho.
More slow tractors – started the day off with one…ending the day with another. This is Idaho!

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.

Out of the mountains and into the sagebrush
Out of the mountains and into the sagebrush on ID 33 east towards Rexburg.
Scenic cinder Hills and Shadows as seen on Idaho Hwy 33
Scenic shadowy hills as seen on Idaho Hwy 33

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….

(1859)

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Sumoflam

Travelographer Extraordinaire. I Enjoy the Ride by traveling and seeing the world around me. We are so busy speeding down the freeways of life that we miss out on the back roads and all the wonderful little stories that every place offers. So, I try to take the less beaten paths and see the real world. I have visited all 50 United States and many provinces in Canada, nearly all prefectures in Japan as well as Seaul, Korea, Shanghai and Suzhou, China and Cenu, Philippines. Also been to Mexico. Father of five, grandfather of 10 and happily married to my sweetheart for nearly 38 years. Fluent in Japanese. Happy and well traveled. See details at http://www.sumoflam.biz/SumoflamBio.htm

5 thoughts on “A Day Drive in Central Idaho: Volcanoes, Mountains and Rivers”

  1. Really a great job. Great pictures, great narration. I usually tell out-of-staters, “there’s nothing to see in Idaho….” Now the word is out. 🙂
    thanks
    red

    1. Hey Red…Thanks for the kind comments. Trust me, there is PLENTY to see in Idaho and I think I barely scratched the surface. Please share with all so they know how nice it is.

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