Mackay Mine Hill

Are you in the planning stages of a summer family RV vacation in the Pacific Northwest? Do you like getting off the beaten track, gazing over sweeping vistas, enjoy western history, love to hike and explore? Then consider spending a day or so enjoying the MacKay Hill Mine Tour in southern Idaho. Trip Advisor rates it 4.5 out of 5 stars and the number one attraction in MacKay, Idaho.

The tour offers mining buffs, historians and those with an interest in archaeology, a great opportunity to experience the hard-rock mining history of the White Knob Range as they drive and hike among the ruins of a mining operation that ceased decades ago. Interpretive panels along the route explain the history and function of featured structures and equipment. Historical reminders of mining days include weathered buildings, heavy equipment and mining tools that were abandoned when the mines shut down.

Ore Box

Mackay Mine Hill was active from 1879 to 1949 and supported the towns of MacKay, White Knob, Cliff City and Houston. The mines produced primarily copper ore to the tune of nearly four million (1914) dollars. Over 62 million pounds of copper is not all the mines produced, other valuable minerals mined on the hill include 15 million pounds of lead, 5 million pounds of zinc, two million ounces of silver and 42,000 ounces of gold. Through years of mining, men using pneumatic drills, pickaxes and tons of dynamite dug over 20 miles of tunnel through the mountain in search of precious metals.

The driving tour was opened to visitors in 2004 and includes 20 historical stops along 24 miles of route. The tour is open to ATVs, motorcycles and passenger vehicles. The tour is divided up into three vehicle classification routes designated by colors on the map. One portion (red) follows the old narrow gauge mining railway open to vehicles up to 50" wide. High clearance vehicles are recommended on another portion (blue) and the largest portion (green) of the tour is open to regular two wheel drive passenger vehicles. If you don’t have an ATV or high clearance vehicle, not to worry as there are ATV rentals available in the town of MacKay.
However, without the efforts of MacKay residents, the tour would not exist today. In 1999, the Post Register Newspaper reported that Timber Creek Inc., a regional salvage company, planned to tear down historic structures and put the weathered timber to use decorating multimillion-dollar homes in nearby Sun Valley, Idaho as well as Aspen and Vail, Colorado along with Jackson, Wyoming. They had their eye on the “headhouse”, the most impressive and massive structure on the mountain, which stored ore before it was transported down the mountain by tram and train.

Well Marked Route

When MacKay residents learned of the plan to steal MacKay's heritage, they came together and quickly went on the offense to save it. “It got the town up and on their feet,” MacKay Mayor Otto Higbee, who served from 2004 to 2012, stated. “They decided they weren’t going to let that happen to the mine hill — let these individuals come in from out of town and destroy (historic structures) up on the mine hill.” A major victory came when a local surveyor presented evidence that some of the headhouse lays on Forest Service property. To further protect the structures and create public awareness, Mayor Higbee obtained grant money to get the mine hill tour started, saying "the mine hill is a major source of pride in the town" and “That’s kind of where MacKay got started”.

Now that you know the background of the tour let's look at some of the more interesting interpretive stops along the tour:

 The smelter site was the location of a smelter complex designed for 600 tons of ore per day to produce “blister” copper using two huge blast furnaces and a 120 ft. stack. It was built in 1901-02 and had trouble from the start due to lack of metallurgical knowledge and the need to augment processing with ore shipped from afar. By 1908 it was shut down, although it served as a concentrator until the 1940’s. The Shay engine house, machine shop, an 8-hole outhouse and early masonry remain along with many of the hand tools that were used.

Maintenance Shop

 The compressor building is located at the Cossack Tunnel which is at the1600 foot level of the mine above, along with smaller metal clad buildings and remnants of a wooden cabin. This air compressor station was constructed in 1917-1918. Two 227 HP tubular boilers were in the compressor building to supply the steam for the air compressors. The air was sent throughout the mine by pipes and hoses to miners’ drills and jack hammers. In the 1940s, the compressor building was converted to an electricity plant, but major mining ended shortly thereafter.

Wooden Cabins

AERIAL TRAMWAY HEADHOUSE The headhouse is one of the featured attractions on the tour, still standing tall on a precarious slope amid spectacular views of the Big Lost River Valley and the soaring Lost River Range beyond. This structure, located at the 700 ft. level of the mine, was the upper terminal and loading station for the gravity powered aerial tramway system that connected the mines with the smelter below. Placed in operation in 1918, the system replaced the Shay mining railroad, in operation since 1905. This aerial tramway consisted of ore buckets traveling on a six mile-long loop of 1 1/4" steel cable supported on 36 wooden towers. Ore was delivered to the top of the headhouse structure from a nearby tunnel. Today what remains of the headhouse loading station is still a formidable sight. Look closely to see examples of expert timber joinery and craftsmanship done almost a century ago.

View From the Headhouse


 At the 700 ft. level, the Alberta tunnel was the center of the Empire Copper Co.’s mining activity. The tunnel, started about 1900, goes in over 4,000 ft. and ties to miles of cross-cut tunnels, shafts and raises. This site was also the unloading point of a long surface tramway providing ore transport from tunnels far above. This site was the top dumping spot for the huge trackside ore bins on the Shay roadbed hundreds of feet below. This site had a blacksmith shop, warehouse, dwellings and bunkhouses, as well as a large plant with two boilers that generated steam to drive generators and air compressors. Today, only the shells of the blacksmith and warehouse structures remain along with the concrete foundation remnants of the steam and compressor plant.

Tram Towers

The above sites are just four of the 20 interpretive stops along the route, keep a sharp eye out as there are many more unmarked points of interest along the way for those inclined to find them.

If you are an adventurous RVer, then consider the MacKay Hill Mine Driving Tour as part of this year’s summer RV vacation. It offers days of exploring and discovery for the whole family.


Getting there:
Take US Hwy 93 to Main St in MacKay. Turn southwest on Main St which becomes Smelter Ave after four blocks and follow the signs.

For more information:
Click here for a pamphlet of the tour from the BLM Challis Field Office
Click here or a full color map showing the three vehicle classified routes mentioned above
ATV Rentals: Top of Idaho ATV Rentals in MacKay (208) 339-4545. Click here to visit their facebook page.

There are three RV parks in MacKay:

Wagon Wheel Motel & RV Park
809 West Custer MacKay, ID 83251

River Park Golf & RV Park 717 Capitol Ave MacKay, ID 83251 208-588-2296

White Knob Motel & RV Park 4255 US 93 MacKay, ID 83251 208-588-2622

Dispersed camping (aka Boondocking): Once the pavement ends and the gravel starts, boondocking is available all along the route. The views can't be beat when camping on the mine hill.

Great boondocking spot


Dave Helgeson
Author: Dave HelgesonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Dave Helgeson is the MHRV Show Director. He and his wife love to travel across the west in their RV. Dave writes about all things RVing but loves to share destinations and boondocking advice.

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