The Peaks To Craters Scenic Byway is a 140 mile long stretch of highway through one of Idaho’s most scenic regions. This road trip itinerary will detail the best stops along the byway, things to do, and where to stay.
Beginning in Challis and ending at Arco, this drive travels through Central Idaho and ends in Southern Idaho. Of course you can also drive this road trip in reverse from south to north too.
What can you expect to see on the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway? Sweeping mountain ranges dominate this part of Idaho, specifically the Lost River Mountain Range. You’ll see plenty of snow-capped peaks which are a stark contrast to the sage covered desert landscape they rise up from.
Who will love this road trip? This is a great road trip for driving enthusiasts, hikers, climbers, fisherman, hunters, geology nerds, and nature lovers. Because most of the area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management there are lots of camping opportunities too.
The entire region along the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway is considered a four-wheeler mecca and has been designated as the “Off Road Capital of the West”. There are quite literally hundreds of miles of off-road terrain to explore so if you have an ATV you best bring it. If you don’t own one there are a few places you can rent from along the way.
This road trip can easily be covered in one day but plan for longer if you want to hike, fish, or take part in any other recreational opportunities which abound along the way!
Best Stops Along Peaks To Craters Scenic Byway In Idaho
Land Of The Yankee Fork State Park
This road trip begins at the intersection of Peaks To Craters Scenic Byway and the Sawtooth Scenic Byway which is just south of Challis. At this intersection is a rest area and the site of the Land of the Yankee Fork Interpretive Site. Visiting the museum is the best way to become acquainted with this region’s frontier mining history and to familiarize yourself with Land of the Yankee Fork State Park.
The Land of the Yankee Fork State Park encompasses three distinct ghost towns; Bayhorse Ghost Town, Bonanza Ghost Town, and Custer Ghost Town, which are all former mining towns that you can visit further south along Highway 75.
These ghost towns are extremely fascinating and hold many abandoned buildings, a gold dredge, and other restored relics. The interpretive center is a good place to start your exploration because it features several exhibits detailing the history of these ghost towns, audiovisual programs, as well as a gold panning station.
This is also the location of the Bison Kill Site which is an important site for the development of models on bison ecology and the role of the bison in the local native economy. Look for the paved pathway at the Land of the Yankee Fork Interpretive Center that leads up to the archeological excavation site.
At 12,662 feet, Mount Borah is the highest mountain in Idaho. It was named in 1934 after William Borah, a U.S. senator from Idaho who had served for twenty-seven years at the time.
Borah Peak boasts nearly 6000 feet of prominence and is a prized peak amongst the hiking and climbing community. The trail head to the summit is 3.5 miles long taken via the southwest ridge and involves ascending 5,262 feet. It is a strenuous hike and includes a Class 4 arete just before the main summit crest. This point is known as Chicken Out Ridge as many hikers usually chicken out at this point once they see how treacherous the trail becomes.
Not to worry if you have no desire to hike though as you can easily see Mount Borah from the highway. There is a sign along the road pointing out the prominent peak’s location. Keep an eye out for the historical marker which is a good spot to get out for photo opportunities.
Heading south on this scenic byway you’ll pass many other notable Idaho peaks including Leatherman Peak and Mt Breitenbach. This stretch of the road trip is the most spectacular so be sure to take it all in while you can.
Note: You will pass Trail Creek Road soon after the Mount Borah Historical Marker which is a short cut straight to Ketchum and Sun Valley. This is a nice area to explore if you are looking for an alternative drive or other places to hike, fish or camp. This road is closed in winter.
Looking for a place to camp? Joe T. Fallini Campground is situated adjacent to Mackay Reservoir and offers gorgeous views of Mt McCaleb and the Lost River Range. This campground has full RV hookups, restrooms, drinking water, a boat ramp, and an interpretive trail.
Mackay is a former mining town that sits between the Lost River Mountain Range and the White Knob Mountain Range which are home to the highest mountains in Idaho earning Mackay the nickname “Top of Idaho.”
Must see in Mackay includes Mackay’s Historic Mine Hill and the Ghost Towns of White Knob & Cliff Creek. Some of the mine hill is accessible by vehicle while other parts require ATV’s or hiking. White Knob is listed as a ghost town on the National Historical Register and what remains here include restored and derelict cabins, a mill and smelter site, aerial cable tramway towers and headhouse, and grave sites.
While in Mackay, hikers should not miss visiting Lower Cedar Creek Falls. The trail to the falls is about five miles east of Mackay along a well maintained road suitable for all vehicles. The hike is rated moderate and only one and a half miles long with an elevation gain of 600 feet.
Of course there are hundreds of miles for you to discover out here in the Lost River Mountain Range along with several mountain peaks worth pursuing if you enjoy mountain hiking.
In fact, this part of Idaho has nine summits that lie above 12,000 feet collectively known as the “12ers”. The nine Idaho 12ers are the most sought-after goals for Idaho climbers with the most sought after being Mount Borah. Achieving all nine summits places you into a unique category of Idaho peak baggers.
It’s no secret that Idaho is a fisherman’s paradise and Mackay is one of the state’s top fishing destinations. The small town sits just south of the Mackay Reservoir which is stocked with rainbow trout and self-sustaining kokanee. Summer fishing is popular on the lake by boat and from shore while winter offers ice fishing opportunities.
Besides the lake there are endless fishing options here including the Big Lost River, many streams and tributaries, as well as hundreds of mountain lakes.
Where to stay in Mackay
For tent camping and RV accommodations stay at the Wagon Wheel Motel & RV Park located right in town. If you are looking for a free place to camp you can stay at the Mackay Tourist Park for two nights on a first come first served basis.
Where to eat in Mackay
Ken’s Club on main street offers a cozy diner atmosphere with steaks on the menu. If you’re feeling thirsty you’ll find Perk’s Bar next door which is a cowboy type saloon. Mineshaft Cookhouse and Watering Hole is another good option for food and drinks.
What To See Between Mackay and Arco
King Mountain Glider Park
Keep an eye out on the drive between Mackay and Arco for King Mountain Glider Park. The park near Moore is the site of the Hang Gliding and Paragliding championships every year in June.
King Mountain Natural Arch
King Mountain Natural Arch is an eighty foot high limestone arch located on the southern portion of King Mountain. The King Mountain Natural Arch Trail is a steep half mile long but totally worth the effort. If you love adventure and have time on this road trip be sure not to miss this really cool natural feature.
Arco is most famous for being the site of the first power plant in America to produce electricity using atomic energy which happened in December of 1951. The pioneering reactor operated for twelve years before being shut down in 1963. The reactor is now a National Historic Landmark that can be visited by the public.
The Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 Atomic Museum is the only place in the United States you can see four nuclear reactors including two aircraft nuclear propulsion prototypes and reactor control room. Tours of the decommissioned reactor are self guided and can be visited between 9am to 4pm Monday through Saturday. The museum is located in the desert about 18 miles southeast of Arco.
If you’re interested in roadside attractions be sure to stop and see the Devil Boat aka the ‘Submarine in the Desert’. The USS Hawksbill is actually the preserved sail of a submarine which has been placed out the front of the Arco Science Center. The connection to the devil originates from the number 666 displayed on the sail of the submarine which is a hull number. The Arco Science Center itself displays some information about the history and role of nuclear power in Arco.
In July of each year, Arco hosts an event called Atomic Days which features a parade, exhibits, dancing, food, and a rodeo. The weekend long event is fun and worth having your road trip coincide with the occasion.
Where to stay in Arco
For tent camping and RV accommodation we recommend the Craters of the Moon KOA Campground or Mountain View RV Park. If you are looking for a free place to camp check out Honeys Park where you can stay among a post apocalyptic junkyard. The Arco Inn and the DK Motel offer no frill hotel rooms for under $90 dollars.
Where to eat in Arco
Mountain View RV Park has a popular rib dinner along with other good bbq and burger options like their elk wagyu burger. See their menu here. For breakfast stop by Pickle’s Place which offers pancakes and scrambled egg options along with charbroiled burgers, sandwiches, and steak, for lunch and dinner.
From Arco, you will head southwest on U.S. Highway 96 to the next destination on the Peaks To Craters Scenic Byway – Craters of the Moon National Monument (or north on U.S. Highway 96 to Mackay if you are beginning this trip from the south).
Craters Of The Moon National Monument
Craters of the Moon is a vast ocean of lava flows with scattered islands of cinder cones and sagebrush. This national monument is immensely different from any other national park you have visited in the United States.
The preserve here is mostly devoid of forests and towering mountain peaks that most visitors are used to seeing at other national parks in the west. Instead what you’ll find here is one of the best preserved flood basalt areas in the country. There are actually three major lava fields here and they lie across the Great Rift of Idaho which is one of the best examples of open rift cracks in the world.
Another thing this park is well-known for is its many caves which were formed by underground rivers of lava. Four of these caves can be accessed however a permit is required to explore them which you can organize on your way into the park at the visitor center.
The majority of this park is very remote and there is only one road that travels through its northern section. This road is known as the 7 Mile Loop Road and is the best way to see the park. Most of the popular attractions are located right along this road with very little walking required. If you have time there are a few hiking trails that will take you beyond the road and into this weird wilderness of black rocks.
Begin your trip at the visitor center where you can pick up a park brochure and map which will guide you to the top attractions in Craters of the Moon National Monument. Be sure not to miss seeing the view from the Inferno Cone Overlook or strolling through the Devils Orchard Nature Trail.
Something to remember when visiting this park is that there are no cafes or restaurants so you will need to pack your own lunch. Also remember to bring plenty of water as it does get very hot here in the spring and summer months.
How long should you spend at Craters of the Moon National Monument? You can see most of the park’s highlights in half a day but for those of you who want to cover the park in depth and visit the caves or take on longer hiking trails, there is a campground here which is first come first served. Otherwise the nearest lodging is located 18 miles away in Arco.
WHERE TO NEXT?
Craters Of The Moon National Monument was the last stop on this scenic drive along the Peaks To Craters Scenic Byway.
If you are interested in extending your road trip, you can keep heading south to Shoshone first and then onto the beautiful city of Twin Falls where there is an endless amount of things to do and scenic places you should see if you have the chance.
Alternatively, you can head east to Idaho Falls which is a jumping off point for most travelers heading to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. If this is the case for you, be sure to keep an eye out for Big Southern Butte along the way. It can be seen off US Highway 26 and Highway 20 on your way to Idaho Falls.
Big Southern Butte is one of the world’s largest volcanic domes on earth rising 2500 vertical feet above the lava plain near Arco. There are actually three rhyolitic volcanic domes that you can see here but Big Southern Butte is the largest and youngest of the three (300,000 years old). Hikers are able to summit Big Southern Butte which offers views from the Tetons to the south hills of Twin Falls.
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