Idaho February 07, 2017
The Most Criminally Overlooked Town In Idaho And Why You Need To Visit
Scattered throughout the Gem State are a number of small towns where life is still honest and simple – true to Idaho’s roots, filled with small-town appeal, and home to friendly locals who never fail to wave at strangers when passing by. Many of these are far too overlooked by traditional travel sites and residents looking for the best places to live in Idaho, although blissfully passed over by hordes of tourists.
Mackay, Idaho is one such town. In fact, despite being only a relatively short distance from the swanky lure of Sun Valley, Mackay is a world—or at least a half-century—away from Idaho’s treasured resort haven in terms of atmosphere. But this tiny town pulls off its throwback western charm flawlessly and with plenty of natural beauty thrown in, creating the perfect place to visit or settle down… you just haven’t been properly introduced yet.
Nestled at the base of Mt. Borah, Idaho's highest mountain peak (12,662 ft.), and the rest of the towering Lost River Range, this old mining town is often called the "Top of Idaho" for good reason.
Despite what its small population would suggest (pop. 494), this charming gateway community has a rich Western history as deep as the Lost River Valley that it calls home, and a truly special lifestyle that is hard not to fall in love with.
Mackay is named after John W. Mackay, the Nevada mining engineer who funded the mines located below Mackay Peak near the now-ghost town of White Knob.
But despite the tribute, the town's namesake never actually set foot in the community.
Settlers had already begun inhabiting the valley between the Lost River Range and the White Knob Mountains in the late 1800s, and by the turn of the century, the settlement along the Big Lost River was booming. People came in droves to make their fortunes in "Copper City," as the community was being called. But it wasn't until 1901 that the new town was founded and named Mackay.
Nevertheless, the town's mining history continues to weave itself into the local culture.
One must-visit is the self-guided tour of the Mackay Mine - a fascinating trip back in time and through the area's wild backcountry. You can pick up the map at the local market and spend the day exploring the well-marked historical sites, plus climb into the mountains for a beautiful view of Mackay from above. Off-road vehicles or ATVs strongly recommended... but be sure to bring a picnic!
Uniquely, Mackay is home to a Tourist Park loop, where visitors can camp for free for up to three days with proper reservations.
Spaces are available on a first come, first served basis at the park, which is located at the northwesterly end of Vaden Street.
Or, grab a charming room at the Bear Bottom Inn, if camping isn't on your agenda.
Enjoy a few rounds of golf at the River Park Golf Course.
While you're in town be sure to check out the Main Theater, the Lost Rivers Museum, or make the short trip out to Mackay Reservoir for a family day out on the water. The dam that formed the Mackay Reservoir just north of town was completed right around the time the Titanic sank. Mackay soon earned a reputation it’s held on to pretty steadily ever since, as being one of the best places to fish for trout in the West.
Visit the nearby ghost town of White Knob to truly make the most of your visit.
Here, you'll also find the Peaks to Craters scenic byway, along with each of the nine tallest peaks in the state.
Mackay is quite literally immersed in the heart of Idaho's most rugged terrain, but few people realize how truly special "Idaho's Best-Kept Secret" really is.
If you're feeling adventurous, there's no better base camp for hiking into the Lost River Range.
Take a beautiful valley hike up to Hidden Mouth Cave.
Or, make it your bucket list goal to reach the summit of Borah.
But whether you hike to the "Top of Idaho" or not, be sure to make a side trip to see the Borah Fracture.
This 21-mile fault scarp is the landscape's still healing reminder of the 1983 Borah Earthquake (7.3 magnitude) that shook the region and caused the mountain to grow by anywhere from 6-18 inches. In the following months, 20 or so aftershocks continued to shake Mackay and the surrounding area, and the damage of this seismically violent year is still obvious.
But truly, the heart of Mackay is the people.
Most of Mackay’s residents are as rugged as you’ll find in any Old West town, with good senses of humor, tough hides and deceptively soft hearts.
Pictured is the historic Mackay Barbecue Oven, built in 1938, which is often at the center of community bazaars, local gatherings, and free BBQ dinners in the summer.
Ready to pay a visit? (And possibly never leave?)
Of all of Idaho’s small town gems, Mackay truly is something special — boasting that rural, western
je ne sais quoi that Idaho is known for. Have you ever visited?
For more info about climbing Mt. Borah, check out our
previous article here.