At some point while researching my Seattle to Salt Lake City road trip, I stumbled upon something I immediately became (mildly) obsessed with: Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve.
Located in Central Idaho, Craters of the Moon boasts a group of lava fields over 600 square miles in size. (The entire National Park encompasses over 1,100 square miles – that’s larger than the state of Rhode Island!) The park’s landscape includes rugged lava flows, spatter cones, cinder cones, caves and more.
I’d always been fascinated with volcanos so I knew this park had to be a stop on my trip.
Craters of the Moon was conveniently located halfway between Boise, Idaho, where I had spent the night before, and West Yellowstone, Montana, my destination that day, making it a perfect few-hour stop.
A bit of background: Craters of the Moon formed during eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago. In addition to volcanic activity, elements such as earthquakes, weather and gravity have effected the landscape over time.
Crazy fact: The time between eruptive periods in the Craters of the Moon Lava Field averages 2,000 years… and it’s been MORE than 2,000 years since the last eruption. (WHOA!!!)
-> Doesn’t the person in this photo put the enormity of the landscape into perspective? <-
While some visors spend full days at the park – some even camp in the park – I didn’t have all day to spend exploring. So after a quick pop into the Visitor’s Center, I opted to hike the North Crater Trail, a scenic, moderately-challenging trail that offers a great overview of the landscape.
I gathered my backpack – along with plenty of water – and off I went!
It was amazing to me how quickly the surface varied from step to step. Some areas were sandy, some were rocky, some were even speckled with greenery.
The area was proclaimed a National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. At the time, he called the area “a weird and scenic landscape peculiar to itself” – boy did he hit the nail on the head!
An easy hike it was not, but a fascinating one it was! I kept reminding myself that I was hiking in an area of dormant – not extinct – volcanoes. What an incredible thing to do!
Visitors may not remove anything from the park, since it is a protected area, but it was neat to hold a piece of lava rock in my hand – if only for a few seconds.
After hiking for about an hour and a half, I got back in my car and drove through the rest of the park. (I know it doesn’t seem like a long time but it sure felt like enough of a workout in the heat. The black surface seemed to radiate the heat, there was no shade and the inclines were no joke!)
I admired most of the park from my air conditioned car, but did pull into a small parking lot near the Lava Cascades to wander that area for a few minutes.
One thing I would have done had I been with friends is to obtain permit to hike into the caves. (Seeing that they’re dark, damp and incredibly narrow at points, I didn’t’ think it was a wise thing to do all alone!) The park has five caves, each formed by lava.
Permits have been required for the past few years as a result of the arrival and quick spread of White Nose Disease, a fungal disease that has been killing bats throughout the U.S. It’s not a danger to humans, but since it’s thought to be carried via the unwashed hiking clothes and gear of visitors who’ve recently visited other caves or mines, the park started screening visitors and issuing permits.
As long as you haven’t visited another cave or mine – or you have but you’ve washed your clothes and gear since your visit – you should be able to easily obtain a cave permit!
A few tips if you plan on hiking at Craters of the Moon in the summer:
1.) Wear sunscreen and a hat. The sun is strong and there isn’t shade on any of the trails.
2.) Bring plenty of water. (You can fill up your bottles with filtered water in the Visitor’s Center.) It’s a natural wonder, not a tourist trap – there aren’t water stations on the trails. Trust me, you’ll get thirsty quickly.
3.) Be prepared for your sneakers to get dirty – the lava rock is really dusty. Sneaks that can be thrown in the washing machine are perfect.
It’s been months since my visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve and I still gush about it as if it were yesterday. It was just the most intriguing, bizarre, wacky and wild place I’d been in a long time – if not ever. It wouldn’t be as bizarre had it been in Hawaii, where volcanos are common, but it’s literally in the middle of nowhere in Idaho.
So if you haven’t already gathered, I highly recommend a visit to Craters of the Moon if your travels take you to Central Idaho. You won’t regret it! More information about the National Park may be found at the National Park Service’s website, here.