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America’s Atomic City is Now a Ghost Town

The world’s first fatal nuclear power plant explosion occurred in Atomic City, Idaho, just over 50 years ago. 

Once an up-and-coming place to start a family in the 50s, Atomic City is all but a ghost town now.

Photographs of the deserted landscape draw hundreds of visitors every year. But why?

Let’s find out!

About Atomic City, Idaho

Located in southeastern Idaho, Atomic City’s current population is 41. Aside from the town bar and general store, the place feels like a ghost town. And there are ghosts a roaming, for sure. The median age is 58.

Midway was the town’s original name. The location attracted folks looking to work at the Idaho National Laboratory. As the atomic age of post-war America boomed, so did the little town of Midway. 

The world’s first nuclear breeder reactor, the EBR-1, was built just up the road in Arco. Although Arco is known for being the first place ever to be powered by nuclear energy in 1955, it also became the first to experience a partial nuclear meltdown.

Where Is Atomic City, Idaho?

Geographically, Idaho is a fascinating state with a variety of landscapes. Southern Idaho is home to dozens of waterfalls. Atomic CIty is close to Craters Of The Moon National Park. Visitors will be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the country where you can walk on active lava fields.

Most towns around Atomic City are small, making the area a popular destination for fans of vast open landscapes and abandoned buildings. Some liken the area to an old photograph of post-war America, with hopes both lost and found.

Pro Tip: Check out these other 5 Must-See Ghost Towns in Idaho after exploring Atomic City.

Family hiking in Craters of the Moon National Park
Hike through lava fields close to Atomic City in Craters of the Moon National Park.

What Happened in Atomic City, Idaho?

In 1949, The Atomic Energy Commission created an atomic innovation hub next to Atomic City. Nuclear scientists envisioned this 890-mile industrial complex as the world headquarters for nuclear energy innovation. Four of the 52 nuclear reactors propelled research and created hundreds of jobs. That is, until the first accident.

The Partial Meltdown of 1955

The Experimental Breeder Reactor, or EBR-1, proved that atomic energy could produce electricity. But on November 29th, 1955, a partial nuclear meltdown occurred during a coolant flow test. The core melted without a sound. Technicians immediately spread the word to evacuate the building after witnessing the skyrocketing radiation scales.

Many locals took this as a bad sign and left town. However, The U.S. Military continued to use the nuclear industrial complex for research and jobs. But another terrible accident was right around the corner. 

Fatal Devastation in 1960

In December 1960, The Stationary Low-Power Reactor number one, or SL-1, shut down for usual maintenance. The primary crew left for the holidays. 

Military maintenance crew Jack Byrnes, Richard McKinley, and Richard Legg remained on duty. When it was time to get the reactor back online, Byrnes was in charge of manually moving the control rod into place. 

Unfortunately, Byrnes made a catastrophic mistake. He extended the rod 20 inches instead of the 4.2 inches as directed. The result was a steam explosion that caused the entire reactor to jump nine feet into the air. 

Byrnes died immediately, as did Legg, impaled to the ceiling by a rod. Mckinley was knocked to the ground, later dying from radiation exposure and injuries.

All three bodies were so heavily radiated that their organs and limbs had to be extracted and buried with the other accident waste. Relatives of the deceased received partial remains on the condition each would bury their loved ones in lead-lined caskets.

Abandoned building in Atomic City
Explore the ghost town of the Atomic City which was caused by a nuclear disaster..

Did a Love Triangle Cause the Atomic City Explosion?

Even worse, rumors surrounding Byrnes and Legg surfaced one year later. Leo Miazaga, an Atomic Energy Commissioner, released personal information about the trio. They were drinkers and cheaters and loved to go to strip clubs. Journalist William Mckeown wrote a book about the incident in 2003, citing a love triangle as the cause of the accident.

But were the rumors true, or was it a sneaky way for the Atomic Energy Commission to deflect blame for shoddy craftsmanship?

Some news articles state Richard Legg was having an affair with Brynes’ wife. The commissioner’s report also claims Byrnes was arguing with his wife on the phone just before the explosion. However, other articles state that Legg’s wife ran around with Byrnes.

So, who’s zoomin’ who?

We think the rumors are untrue. Maybe these men drank and went to strip clubs, and perhaps some of them had affairs. But the evidence tying these rumors to the accident is paper-thin. And to speculate that this horrible tragedy was a murder-suicide is almost rude. 

Cleanup of the plant exposed hundreds of people to radiation and essentially shut the town down. 

The only bright light in all of this is that nuclear safety measures were completely overhauled. All future reactor designs changed. And all but three reactors in the Idaho Falls area shut down.

Colorful motel in Arco, Idaho
Spend a night or two camping close by the Atomic City.

Best Hikes Near Atomic City

Experts say there’s no danger of radiation exposure at Atomic City these days. The area has certainly become a tourist hot spot. Pun intended. We’ve got some additional sites to add to your itinerary if you’re interested.

Volcanic Badlands Loop

If you love the weirdness of Atomic City, take a 30-minute drive before sunset and hike the Volcanic Badlands Loop. This 1.1-mile moderately challenging route crosses over sharp lava rock from a 4000-year-old volcanic explosion. Local wildlife includes antelope, foxes, and rabbits hiding by the wheatgrass and ferns. 

Be sure to wear good shoes and your glasses. This primitive trail is marked only by blue poles.

Location: Hell’s Half Acre Lava Walk, Blackfoot, ID 83221

North Crater Trail

For a longer hike with incredible views, try North Crater Trail. You’ll feel like you’re walking on the moon. Every part of this 3.5 route is unique, bringing you to caves, craters, and desolate rocky roads. Although marked as moderate, we encourage you to prepare well for this one with sunscreen, water, and AC in your RV.

North Crater Trail is about one hour West of Atomic City and adjacent to our first suggested campground.

Location: Arco, ID 83213. ​​GPS 43.45615740890362, -113.55930556555136

Best Camping Near Atomic City

Lava Flow Campground – Arco, ID

If you’re interested in the North Crater Trail, then staying at Lava Flow Campground is perfect. The campground is just up the road. After exploring Atomic City, you could drive one hour east, camp at Lava Flow, and wake up for a nice hike at North Crater Trail.

Although walk-in sites are available year-round, vehicles are allowed only from Late April to Late November, road permitting.

The coolest thing about this campsite is the active lava flow that surrounds the entire area,

This is a dry-camping site with no hookups. But you’ll find a charcoal grill and a picnic table at every space. Water and flush toilets are seasonally available, with vault toilets open year-round. Fees are $15 per night in the spring/summer season and free for winter snow camping.

Location: U.S. 93 Arco, ID 83213

Pro Tip: Save on your budget by camping at one of these 7 Best Free Camping Spots In Idaho.

Mountain View RV Park – Arco, ID

Located about 30 minutes from Atomic City, this new-ish campsite offers many amenities and creature comforts. In addition to Mountain View RV Park’s full hookups, WiFi, excellent cell signal, and a laundromat, there’s also an on-site restaurant.

Rates are $54 per night, with weekly and monthly rates offered at a discount. Fully paved and flat, the campsite is very easy to get to.

Location: 705 W Grand Ave Arco, ID 83213

Is a Road Trip to Atomic City Worth It? 

Well, what’s your risk tolerance? We’re not particularly ready to go to the center of a deadly nuclear disaster. That said, we do recommend considering the area if you’re on your way to Yellowstone or you want to explore Boise, Idaho. The natural beauty surrounding Atomic City certainly is unique. 

Perhaps you might reverse engineer your road trip. Plan to visit some of the beautiful waterfalls and cratered local landscape. Once you’ve decided where you’d like to camp, decide if Atomic CIty is a place you’d like to check out.

What do you think? Will you be adding Atomic City to your travel plans? Tell us in the comments!

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