Melynda Harrison worked in partnership with Visit Idaho to create this Travel Tip.
Miles before arriving at the visitor center at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, a field of hardened lava appeared south of the highway. At first, my husband and I debated whether it was actually lava or just a shadow of a cloud across the land. Having been to Craters several times before, I knew it was the beginning of a volcanic wonderland.
The landscape at Craters of the Moon was created by a handful of lava flows over time. The lava here didn’t erupt out of volcanoes, but rather oozed out of fissures in the earth and occasionally spewed out of vents. Sometimes a flow would partially cover a previous lava bed, other times it would create new ones. The result is 618 square miles (not all in the National Monument) of cinder cones, lava tubes, tree molds, lava rivers, spatter cones, and lava beds as far as you can see.
I keep coming back to Craters of the Moon because it feels like a place like no other; it’s “out of this world,” as they say. I couldn’t wait to share it with my husband, who had never been, and our two boys, who were too young to remember our last visit.
1. Volcanoes and Space Research at the Visitor Center
Our first stop was the visitor center. We wandered through the exhibits, got our bearings, and picked up Lunar Ranger packets for the boys. While all the parks and monuments in the National Parks System have Junior Ranger programs, Craters of the Moon is the only one with a Lunar Ranger Badge. That’s because the effects of volcanism aren’t just interesting to geologists, biologists, and climatologists, this otherworldly landscape turns out to be perfect for NASA research and space mission training.
In 1969, Apollo 14 astronauts prepared for their trip to the moon, also a volcanic landscape, with a visit to Craters. They learned how to select volcanic samples to bring back to earth and how to navigate a lava environment. NASA research continues at Craters of the Moon today.
The visitor center is also the place to get a cave permit and we knew we wanted to explore a lava tube. To protect bats from a disease that is moving toward the monument, anyone who plans to enter the lava tubes, or caves, needs a free permit. Park staff will check your gear and go over a few safety details.
2. View From the Scenic Loop Road
A seven-mile loop road points you to all the trailheads in Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve and you can even cross-country ski there in winter. While we couldn’t wait to get out of the car, run around, and immerse ourselves in the landscape, the drive itself is worth a visit to the park. Leaving the visitor center, we were instantly transported to another place filled with cinder beds, lava hoodoos, and an overall surreal landscape.
3. Hiking on the Moon
With map in hand and permit displayed on the dashboard, we chose a few hikes. I wanted the boys and Henry to see as many of the different types of volcanic features as possible.
One of the great things about Craters of the Moon is that you can see so much from just a few short trails—it’s perfect for families or those who don’t have a lot of time. If you stay longer or camp overnight you can explore more and wander farther afield. Craters of the Moon is an International Dark Sky Park which means there is a total lack of light pollution. The stars light up the sky in an unbelievable way and come right down to your tent.
We only had three or four hours to spend at the park so we started out with a scramble up Inferno Cone. It’s a 0.2-mile, steep walk up a cinder cone that looks like it should be in Hawaii. It was hold-onto-your-hat-windy up there, but we were enthralled with the panoramic views of the rest of the Monument, the Great Rift, the Snake River Plain, and the Pioneer Mountains.
Next up was a quick jaunt around and up a spatter cone. Spatter cones start as vents in the ground, spewing lava into the air. The lava comes back down and lands around the vent forming a cone like a drip sandcastle.
The 1.8-mile Broken Top Loop Trail was our next walk. The easy trail circles a hill and along the way we saw a lot of different volcanic features. The boys especially liked standing on the “lava bombs” – masses of molten rock formed when a vent ejected viscous fragments of lava during an eruption. The lava cooled into a solid mass before it reached the ground.
4. Caving in Lava Tubes
There are five caves or lava tubes that can be explored in Craters, and four of them can be found on the aptly named Caves Trail. We climbed down the stairs into Indian Tunnel and scrambled over rocks for about 800 feet to come out the other end. Light shines into Indian Tunnel from places where the lava tube has collapsed and it is high enough that my 6’6” husband could stand most of the way. Other caves are darker and a tighter fit.
5. Fried Pickles
It’s not actually at Craters of the Moon, but you can’t pass through nearby Arco without trying the fried pickles at Pickle’s Place. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about them, but they were actually really good and the restaurant has a full menu if you want something more than pickles. As we ate our pickles and sipped iced tea, we chatted about what a cool, weird, interesting place Craters of the Moon is and how we can’t wait to get back.
Feature image credited to Melynda Harrison.