Craters of the Moon: Idaho’s secret treasure

Craters of the Moon

We visited Craters of the Moon in October, on our way from Yellowstone to our daughter’s home in Idaho. After heading out the West Yellowstone entrance, we continued down Hwy 20, staying on it through Idaho Falls and then over into the land of lava. Many many miles of lava gave Steve some unwanted flashbacks of hiking through it for days in the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail! The landscape is pretty surreal in this section of Idaho.

Where’s the volcano??

So usually, when you find lava fields, you find a volcano. But that’s not the case in Idaho! In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the area a National Monument in order to preserve “a weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself”. I’ve got to agree with his assessment! It’s definitely a weird and scenic and peculiar landscape. So, the craters and lava don’t come from a single volcano but from a seies of deep fissures that cross the Snake River Plain. The area is also known as the Great Rift, and it started spitting up lava about 15,000 years ago to create this crazy rock landscape. It most recently erupted about 2,000 years ago. Who knew? I figured lava meant a single volcano, but it turns out this area is more like some of the active volcanic areas in Hawaii.

Miles of Lava
Miles of lava

Lava Flow Campground: the name alone is Cool!

Craters of the Moon is a 750,000-acre National Monument and Preserve. There are many miles of undeveloped dirt and gravel roads in the surrounding areas. The Bureau of Land Management’s Shoshone Field Office provides maps and backcountry camping options in the area. For this trip though, we stuck to the pavement and to the first-come, first-served Lava Flow Campground (no reservations accepted).

There are 42 sites to choose from, most are like ours, kind of a pull over to the side, rather than pull in. We saw restrooms, charcoal grills and picnic tables, but no RV hookups. Only about five other RV’s camped there on the night we did, so it was quiet and we had our pick of spots. We paid our $8 by credit card at an automated paystation at the campground entrance. Super easy. When the water is turned on in the campground, it costs $15/night. It’s also half-price with a Senior or Access pass.

Craters of the Moon
Cupcake at Lava Flow CG

Craters of the Moon has a good sized visitor center (when it’s all open, thanks Covid). The staff is very knowledgable and told us about hiking trails to some great sites. Normally, there are films and exhibits, along with the schedule for ranger-led walks and evening programs. Those weren’t available to us though. We arrived later in the day, so found a campsite to park in and then stayed close to it for the evening. The next morning we set off exploring!

Let’s Explore Craters of the Moon

A 7-mile loop road took us to all the must-see sites. Our favorite stop is the Inferno Cone. It’s a steep but relatively short walk up this “hill” of fine black rock. You get over the first hump, only to realize there’s another good stretch to the actual top. Up there it’s super, super windy but you can see cinder cones lined up along the Great Rift. A single, old tree is at the top and it’s rugged from the years of wind, but it’s beautiful. The whole surrounding scene is kind of fascinating! Plus for those who care, cell service works up here. We sat for a while catching up on text messages, email and blog posts. A young couple sat in the front seats of the their own RV, typing away at the laptops too. Guess you take reception when you get it!

The next stop is Devil’s Orchard Nature Trail. It’s a short half-mile, accessible loop through cinder beds and native vegetation. Info signs line the path telling about the area and how it was formed.

Spatter Cones and Big Craters

Next we saw the Spatter Cones and Big Craters area. It’s an easy walk to see the huge craters in the ground. The spatter cones are miniature volcanoes which formed during the dwindling stages of the Great Rift’s eruption. I’m not really even finding the words to describe this whole area. Let’s see, there’s black lava rock with big cones of black lava rock, surrounded by craters in the black lava rock. Once in a while we could see plants and shrubs growing amidst the rock, but mostly it’s miles and miles of black lava rock. I can very much understand how it got the name Craters of the Moon. It’s easy to imagine that the moon looks similar, desolate yet weirdly beautiful.

We really wanted to see the caves…

The Cave Area remained closed during our visit and I can’t actually remember if thats because of Covid or for repairs to the trail. Definitely a bummer, as we love exploring the Ape Caves on Mt St Helens and I sure looked forward to checking these lava tubes out. They have such great names: Dewdrop, Boy Scout, Beauty and Indian Tunnel. Who wouldn’t want to explore for a while? When the caves are open, you do need a permit, which you can get from the Visitor’s Center. Take a flash light, wear good shoes, you know basically be smart, as you’re going underground.

Come and Stay at Craters of the Moon!

I’d certainly reccomend staying a night or two at the Lava Flow campground to explore the area fully. You can take the North Crater Trail from it to the Snow Cone and Spatter Cones. Seems like it’s about two miles. We didn’t get to take it since it’s closed for repairs, but it seems like it’s reopening in 2021. It’s worth checking into! Other trails are available for hiking and for the all important running off of energy if you’re traveling with littles. Check with the rangers at the Visitor Center for all the details of what’s currently open.

Craters of the Moon is a great place to stop and explore. I hope you enjoy it!

Craters of the Moon
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