Why You Should Road Trip to the Atomic City of Arco, Idaho

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Arco Idaho is known for its high school classes etching their graduation years on the large mountain face above town.

When it comes to locations for nuclear tech, you’ve probably heard of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and maybe even Oak Ridge, Tennessee. But did you know that Arco, Idaho, has just as much of a claim on the nation’s nuclear history? Let’s take a trip to this humble but historic small town and learn more about the enormous impact it had on the atomic world. 

An RV driving into the sunset on its way to Arco, Idaho.

About Arco, Idaho

Arco came to be in the mid-19th century, as the town’s site lay alongside a cut-off for the famous Oregon Trail. It grew to be an important regional hub for travelers over the decades. After the U.S. Postal Service rejected the original proposed name of “Junction,” it was eventually named after George Von Arco, a prominent German radio scientist. 

Two industries are the primary economic drivers for the town of approximately 900 residents.  Since the 1940s, the area has been home to extensive U.S. military training locations and government science facilities like the Idaho National Laboratory. The Arco region also benefits from tourism and outdoor recreation. Thanks to its natural beauty and easy access to local rivers, forests, and other distinctive landscapes. 

What Is Arco, Idaho Famous For? 

Arco, Idaho, is most famous for its connection to several firsts in the quest for nuclear power in the United States.

In 1951, the nearby Experimental Breeder Reactor was the first in the country to create usable electricity from a nuclear power source. Four years later, Arco became the first town in the world to be lit entirely by “atomic power”. Thanks to nuclear energy generated by the Borax-III reactor at the site now known as the Idaho National Laboratory. While the test only lasted an hour, it proved nuclear-powered towns were a real possibility, paving the way for current nuclear energy technology.

However, Arco’s atomic history has some darker elements, as well. The first nuclear accident in American history involved the Experimental Breeder Reactor in 1955, only a few years after its historic feat. Sadly, the Arco area was also home to the first fatal nuclear incident in U.S. history. In 1961, three workers died following an accident and partial meltdown at the SL-1 reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory facility. 

The reactors of Arco, Idaho.

Is Arco Radioactive? 

Despite Arco’s nuclear history, the town is not radioactive or in any way dangerous because of it. Concerns over the potential health impacts of the nearby nuclear reactors led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to team up with the Idaho National Laboratory to study the issue. 

Their 1991 report found next to no measurable impact though. Even on those who lived closest to the facilities or got the highest potential doses of released radiation. Even the most extreme cases in the worst periods of radiation releases only resulted in the approximate amount of radiation from three chest x-rays over a year. 

Further study and analysis in 2004 confirmed that any radiation in the Arco area was low-level. And surprisingly, in the report’s words, “not sufficient to cause human health effects.” 

Why You Should Visit Arco

Despite its small size, there are still fun things to do in Arco, Idaho, and the surrounding area. We rounded up a few of our favorites.

Craters of the Moon National Monument

For a landscape that you’re unlikely to see elsewhere (at least on this planet), head over to Craters of the Moon National Monument, about 20 miles southwest of Arco. These barren, black volcanic fields stretch for more than 600 square miles across south-central Idaho. The area has an otherworldly quality that inspired its name. 

Your first stop should be the park’s Robert Limbert Visitor Center. Here you can get the lay of the land and learn about the park’s origins and your exploration opportunities. For short visits, drive the 7-mile scenic Loop Road, or check out the easily accessible Inferno or Spatter Cones. 

If you’re staying for a half-day or longer, get up close and personal with this unique landscape. Take hikes to Big Craters or along the Broken Top Loop or Wilderness Trail. You can also pick up a permit to explore the park’s many caves, which once carried molten lava below the surface. There are tent sites for camping and a limited number of no-hookup RV-friendly sites. 

Experimental Breeder Reactor Atomic Museum

We’ve already discussed this reactor (known as EBR-1 for short) and its history-making actions from 1951 to 1955. The reactor was unique in that it created more fuel than it consumes through a then-experimental process known as “breeding.”

It’s now a National Historic Landmark and museum. Showcasing four reactors and experimental nuclear technology and breaking down the process of generating power through atomic energy. You can take both self-guided and seasonal guided tours of the site. The Experimental Breeder Reactor Atomic Museum is about 20 miles southeast of Arco. 

Number Hill

Just to the north of Arco, you’ll notice a striking visual. Since 1920, each graduating class from Butte County’s small high school will paint the last two digits of their graduation year on the side of this prominent hill. The town carefully guards the rock face otherwise, preventing any other types of graffiti. It’s a fun local tradition and a way for local youth to leave their mark on this vast, wild place. 

Number Hill is worth checking out just to snap a picture or two. You can’t help but wonder how exactly those kids managed to get up there. You can catch a glimpse from many spots in town due to the hill’s prominence in the local geography. 

Where to Stay in Arco, Idaho

Arco may not have all the accommodations of a big city, but you’ve got several quality options for a town of its size, especially for RVers.

Mountain View RV Park and Restaurant

With more than two dozen full hookup, pull-through RV sites, Mountain View RV Park and Restaurant offers affordable and comfortable RV camping in Arco. Campers can access free wifi, a shower and bathroom facility, and on-site laundry. The park also offers a dump station and propane refills if you’re running low. You can also enjoy a delicious dinner at Mountain View’s full-service restaurant with its ribs, sweet tea, and other southern food and barbecue. 

The park is also perfect for exploring the sights of eastern Idaho. From Craters of the Moon National Monument to Big Southern Butte or the Little Lost River, tons of outdoor recreation opportunities are just a short drive away.    

Arco, Idaho may not be the most well-known destination in the Gem State, but it’s home to some of the country’s most otherworldly landscapes and unexpected historic breakthroughs. This “atomic city” is one that science fans and lovers of the outdoors won’t want to miss. 

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