Blackfoot: Rupe’s Burgers, Idaho Potato Museum
Arco: EBR-1 Nuclear Reactor, Atoms For Peace Park, PartsCity Auto Parts, Deli Sandwich Shop
Mackay: Ken’s Club, Custer County Fairgrounds
Pocatello: Goody’s Deli, Office Bar
Borah Peak (also known as Mount Borah) is the highest peak in Idaho at 12,662 ft tall. It is located in the Lost River Range in central Idaho – about 5 hours from both Salt Lake City and Boise. Mount Borah is not your average mountain. In just 4 miles, the trail gains over 5,200 ft (a vertical mile) making it one of the steepest trails in the country. There is also a famous class 3 scramble known as Chickenout Ridge located 2/3 of the way up.
Having climbed 11 state high points, I figured Borah would be a solid challenge. I was able to find a climbing partner in Ken- a college friend who has climbed 24 state high points. Ken also lived in Salt Lake so it was easy to meet up there. With three days to work with, I decided to spend one day driving up to the mountain, one day to climb the mountain and one day to return back to Salt Lake City.
Day 1: Beef, Potatoes and Nuclear Fission
On Thursday after work, I flew into Salt Lake City and spent the night at Ken’s house near Temple Square.
The next morning, I started the drive up to Mount Borah. Ken had a meeting that morning so we drove separately.
After a low-tire pressure scare in North Salt Lake, I made it to Blackfoot, Idaho by noon. I got lunch at the town’s most popular restaurant- Rupe’s Burgers. My burger and fries- made with local beef and potatoes- were incredible. I also saw my first (of many) cowboys- the guy seated next to me at the counter had a dirty straw ten-gallon hat. He was a livestock rancher.
Just a few blocks away is the Idaho Potato Museum. Out front, there is an enormous baked potato statue. Inside the small museum, there are exhibits on everything you could possibly want to know about potatoes: the history of the plant, uses, its relation to Idaho, processing technique and much more. I spent about 45 minutes here — much longer than I was expecting.
From Blackfoot, I turned onto the desolate US 26 and headed out into a flat wasteland. 45 minutes later, I reached the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 (EBR-1) nuclear reactor. While not in use today, EBR-1 made history on December 20, 1951 when it became the world’s first functioning nuclear power plant. The power from the nuclear fission reactions generated enough energy to illuminate four lightbulbs. Soon after, the building was able to generate enough electricity to power itself. The plant was decommissioned in 1964 after the government decided to use a different type of technology for nuclear power plants.
There were a lot of scary signs including one requiring guests to wear shoes to avoid radiation exposure. Once inside, there was a self-guided tour that explains the process of generating power. Nuclear fission is definitely above many people’s heads, but the museum does about a good a job as possible at explaining this complicated process.
Past EBR-1, the terrain suddenly shifted. Instead of desert, I was now in the Lost River Valley surrounded by the Lost River Mountains, the range that contains 7 of the 9 12,000+ peaks in Idaho.
Eventually, I reached Mackay (pronounced mack-ee). After stocking up on food for tomorrow’s climb, I got an early dinner at what appeared to be the best restaurant in town- Ken’s Club. It was only 5pm but the place was packed with cowboys and families in Western wear. I ordered the delicious prime rib for just $18.
After driving another 30 minutes north, I eventually reached the trailhead for Borah Peak. The campground was full, but people were camping in the dirt parking lot. At around 8pm, Ken arrived. We went to bed around 9:30.
Day 2: Summiting Borah and Some Idaho Culture
Heeding online advice, we woke up at 3am and started hiking by 4am. It was still dark out, so we used headlamps as a guide. This was probably for the best because we could see neither the gigantic mountain nor the incredibly steep trail.
For the first 90 minutes, we pushed up through a thick pine forest. Ken, having just spent a week summiting Wyoming’s high point, was in much better shape than me and walked fast. I did my best to stay up with him.
Right around the 75 minute mark, we climbed out of the forest and reached the ridge. Here, the trail flattened out (it was still going uphill but was not quite as steep). We also got our first view of the massive western face of Borah. Somewhere on the ridge we reached the halfway point.
The sun started to rise as we reached Chickenout Ridge 2/3 of the way up the mountain. Here the trail ends and the path to the top crosses a steep rocky outcropping. With no clear way to cross the section, we climbed over the rocks.
After 5-10 minutes of climbing along a non-intuitive route, we finally reached the infamous snow bridge. I had flashbacks to the Bridge of Khazad Dum scene from the first Lord of the Rings (the one where Gandalf yells “You cannot pass” and then falls down the chasm). The soundtrack was humming in my head. After descending down a steep 15-ft tall rock face, we carefully trod across the doubly exposed snow bridge. Why was there snow here but nowhere else on the mountain? I have no idea.
From here the trail traced the ridge until we reached the final slope of Borah itself. The trail reappeared and wound its way up towards the summit.
Unfortunately, we lost the way and had to rock climb the rest of the way. The climbing here was actually a highlight for me. We ended up splitting up when Ken thought we were only 10 minutes away and tried to push to the summit. I decided to take a water break instead. 40 minutes later, I reached the summit. Ken beat me there by about 10 minutes.
Finally, we reached the top of Idaho after just 3 hours 45 minutes of hiking! The view was incredible.
After an hour of relaxing and taking pictures with the props, we headed down. The descent took nearly as long as the ascent. It was not fun. Ken and I were very surprised how many people were hiking the mountain and started after sunrise. I think this was due to lack of preparation — I would estimate that at least half of the hikers would not summit. With sore knees, I reached the car at noon.
After a celebratory lunch back in Mackay, we parted ways. Ken headed up to the Sawtooths and I decided to stay in town for a little bit. It turned out that the county fair was going on just a mile out of town in the rodeo grounds.
Custer County has just 4,300 residents and at least 10% of them were at the fair because this was not just any day — this was the 4H/FFA auction day! Children up to high school age were auctioning off their cows (steer), pigs (swine), and goats.
Virtually every man was wearing a white straw cowboy hat, Western shirt, jeans, and boots. Except for those working at the fair, the women did not wear Western apparel. I stood out like a sore thumb in my hiking gear.
There were a couple permanent structures at the fairgrounds. One barn held the cows and another held the other animals. Registration and other contests (such as best pie and best painting) were in a third structure. The rodeo grounds and grandstands were in the middle of the structures.
At 2:30 pm, everyone took their seats in the grandstands and the auction began. The auctioneer was seated in a straw cowboy hat on a stage in the middle of the corral. He was assisted by a record-keeper/accountant, two helpers to watch for bids and two wranglers to move the animal out of the corral.
The first auction was for a swine and raised money for a local charity. The kid who raised the pig prodded it around the front of the corral with a long pole. The auctioneer chanted in a cadence so fast that I could barely understand what was said. As he called out bids, qualified bidders would raise their hands and the assistants would yell. This process would go on until nobody else put up a bid. A typical auction would last about a minute. Then the animal was taken to the back so the kid and bidder could take a picture together with the animal.
The charity swine went for $1,000, which is about 10 times the usual price. Most animals went for slightly above the market price for various meats.
Right after the charity swine, the grand champion and runner-up steers, swine and goats were auctioned off. This was followed by the rest of the animals.
I left around 3:30 pm. As soon as I started driving, the flat tire light came on again. After failing to see a flat tire, I decided to drive until I reached Arco, the nearest town with a service station open on a weekend. The guy there told me that I had been driving with a nail in my tire for the past 350 miles!! Luckily it was an easy patch and I was on my way. Had the puncture been bigger, I could have been in major trouble.
From Arco, it was an easy 90 minute drive to Pocatello, where I got to visit my college friend Leah. She was working for NASA, which has a presence at Idaho State University. While Pocatello isn’t much from the freeway, it actually has a nice downtown and a cool college-town vibe.
We got dinner at a local deli/bar (why is EVERY bar in Idaho have the same type of carpeting?) and then went out for a night on the town. It turned out that “Pokey” was having a huge summer concert where they closed off the main bar street to cars and allowed open containers.
The large and interestingly dressed townspeople (including someone a T-rex costume) jammed out to a combo heavy metal/country band. There in the middle of a crowded street, we celebrated the climb and friendship to the sounds of a metal-version of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”.
I really enjoyed this trip. Not only was Borah a significant but doable climb, but I also got to experience the cowboy culture of Idaho. In today’s increasingly urban society, it is difficult to find authentic rural culture. There is a lot more to see in this overlooked state. I hope to come back soon.