Butte City & Arco, Idaho

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The area of Idaho west of Idaho Falls, and just south of the mountains, lies the Snake River Plain.  It’s mostly a flat desert landscape, with not a lot to see.  But after about an hour of driving on US 20, you’ll finally come to two small towns: Butte City and Arco.

Location

Arco is located at the intersection of US 20, 26, and 93.  Butte city is just a few miles to the east, along US 20/26.

My Visit

Butte City is more of a community than a town.  I didn’t see a Main Street or any kind of business district, but rather, a cluster of irrigated farms, turning a small patch of the brown landscape green.  It is beautiful here, though, with the tail end of the Lost River Mountain Range in the background.

The farms made for a few good pictures, and thankfully the rain had stopped.

Arco

Just a few miles down the road is Arco, an interesting little town with a few quirky landmarks.  The first one you’re likely to notice as you drive through town, is the sail of a submarine, protruding out of the ground.  It’s the conning tower of the decommissioned submarine, the USS Hawkbill. Local leaders arranged to have it delivered here after the sub was decommissioned in 2001.  And no, the rest of the sub is not buried underground.

So why a submarine sail in the middle of the desert?  It all makes sense, when you realize that Arco (and the nearby nuclear testing labs) helped make naval nuclear power a reality.  Since the cold war years, some 40,000 sailors have been trained in nuclear operations, at nearby prototype power plants.

Arco may also be the only city in the world that’s proud of a rather sloppy display of graffiti.  On “Number Hill” you’ll find painted numbers dating back nearly a century.  In 1920, students at Butte County High School decided to paint their graduation year on the rocks.  The next year’s class liked the idea, and added a “21” to the previous year’s “20”.

Note the very tiny “20” in the picture above–it’s just below the 50.

The tradition continued, and now the entire hillside is covered with two-digit numbers (with the exception of the class of 2000–I guess “00” wasn’t good enough for them).

Arco can make one more claim to fame: it is the first city in the world to be lit by atomic power.  The town hall proudly proclaims this fact.

It was July 17, 1955, when Arco first received its power from a nearby nuclear reactor.  The event only lasted a couple of hours. Americanprofile.com has more on the occasion that electrified the town, in more ways than one.

The crossroads of US 93, 20, and 26 is at the middle of town (with Numbers Hill in the background, of course).

This historic marker stands at the edge of Bottolfsen Park, named for former Idaho governor C.A. Bottolfsen.  You’ll pass it on the way out of town, on US 20/26/93. Our next stop is Craters of the Moon National Monument, 19 miles to the west.  Follow US 20/26/93.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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