Craters of the Moon National Monument

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P.O. Box 29
Arco, ID 83213
(208) 527-3257

Craters of the Moon has been described as "The strangest 75 square miles on the North AmericanContinent" by one early traveler. Others deem it "a weird lunar landscape," "an outdoor museum ofvolcanism," and "a desolate and awful waste". Virtually unknown until 1921, the area was made anational monument in 1924, and today it embraces 83 square miles. The Shoshone Indians neverinhabited this are in large numbers, but they hunted here. Pioneers in covered wagons skirted the lavaflows; later cattle ranchers avoided the place; and miner staked claims only nearby. But this oddlandscape, showing our globe's awesome forces, eventually became an object of awe.

Geologists predict that the landscape will sometime erupt again. Surface patterns and formations aboundhere which are typical of basalitic lava associated with volcanism the world over. "Where is the volcano?"you might ask. There is not just one, for her the Earth opened a great wound and lava spewed out. Thefissure vents, volcanic cones, and lava flows of the Great Rift zone began erupting only 15,000 years agoand ceased only 2,000 years ago.

Drive the 7-mile loop road to discover the spatter and cinder cones, lava flows and lava tube caves. Youwill also find wildflowers, birds and mammals.

To the south in the park lies the vast Craters of the Moon Wilderness established by Congress in 1970.This region boasts stark volcanic features flanking the Great Rift and challenges serious hikers andexplorers. Before you decide on such a trek, check with Park rangers. There is no water in summer, andthe Hawaiian word for one type of lava here means "hard on the feet."

Plant and Animal Life at the Monument

Garnering livelihoods from this alien, Moonlike landscape are no less than 2,000 insectspecies, 148 birds, 47 mammals, 8 reptiles, and a lone amphibian, the western toad. Muledeer are sometimes seen around Paisley, inferno, and Broken Top cones. Secretivepredators, bobcats and great horned owls, hunt here. The prairie falcon preys on other birdsand small mammals with lightning dives. In the campgrounds you may see chipmunks andgolden mantled round squirrels.

More than 300 species of plants are found in this apparently desolate landscape. Bigsagebrush, antel bitterbush, and rubber rabbitbrush are established on the older lava flows.On the younger flows, mockorange and tansybush may fill deeper crevices where soil matterhave accumulated.

Wildflowers carpet Craters of the Moon from early May until late August. The more delicateannuals bloom during late May and early June when snowmelt and occasional rains providefair amounts of moisture. With summer's dryness the more drought resistant plants continueto grow and bloom.

Craters of the Moon Loop Road

Before beginning your exploration of the Loop Road stop at the Visitors Center. The centerdisplays and a short video describe the park's lava phenomena, life, history, and the Earthprocesses creating them. Check on schedules of conducted walks and evening programs, andexamine the sales publications about the park. Ask questions about both the park and yourexplorations.

The 7-mile loop road takes you deeper into the park's unique scenic attractions. Side tripslead to points outlined below. Most of the drive is one way. Several spur roads andtrailheads enable you to explore Craters of the Moon even further. The trails invite foottravel. You can make the drive, including several short walks in your itinerary, in about 2hours.

North Crater Flow - At this first stop a short trail crosses the flow to a group ofmonoliths or crater wall fragments transported by lava flows. This flow is one of theyoungest and here the Triple Twist Tree suggests, because of its 1,350 growth rings, thatthese eruptions ceased only 2,000 years ago. You see fine examples of both ropy pahoehoelava and a'a lava flows on North Crater Flow. Just up the road is the North Crater Trail,Take this longer, steep trail to peer into a volcano vent.

Devil's Orchard - After the road skirts Paisley Cone, on the east side stands DevilsOrchard. This group of lava fragments stands like islands in a sea of cinders. A short spurroad leads to a self-guiding trail through these weird features. As you walk this 1/2-miletrail, you will see how people have had an impact on this lava landscape and what is beingdone to protect it today. This barrier-free trail is designed to provide access to allpeople.

Inferno Cone Viewpoint - A volcanic landscape of cinder cones spreads before youto the distant mountain ranges beyond. Cool, moist north slopes of the cones have noticeablymore vegetation than the drier south slopes. From the summit of Inferno Cone - a short,steep walk-you can easily recognize the chain of cinder cones along the Great Rift.

Big Cinder Butte towers above the lava plain in the distance. This is one of thelargest purely basaltic cinder cones in the world.

Big Craters and Spatter Cones Area - Spatter cones formed along the Great Riftfissure where clots of pasty lava stuck together when they fell. The material and forces ofthese eruptions originated at depths of nearly 37 miles within the Earth. To protect thesefragile volcanic features, you are required to stay on trails in this area.

Trails to Tree Molds and Wilderness - A spur road just beyond Inferno Cone takesyou to trails to the Tree Molds Area, Trench Mortar Flats, and the Craters of the MoonWilderness. Tree molds formed where molten lava flows encased trees and then hardened.The cylindrical molds that remained after the wood rotted away range from a few inches tojust under 3 feet in diameter. Note: All backcountry camping requires a permit available atthe Visitor Center.

Cave Area - At this last stop on the loop road take a 1/2-mile walk to the lava tubesand see Dewdrop, Boy Scout, Beauty, and Surprise Caves and the Indian Tunnel. You needto carry artificial light in all caves but Indian Tunnel.

Hiking Trails

North Crater Flow Trail - 1/4 mile, easy; This trail takes you onto theNorth Crater Flow, a pahoehoe flow that spilled from the North Crater vent about 2,100years ago. Signs along the trail introduce other typical basalt features: pressure ridges,squeeze ups, a'a lava, and rafted blocks. Devil's Orchard - 1/3 mile, easy; This paved trail explores an area of cinderbeds scattered with pieces of the North Crater wall. Signs and a brochure describe how theNational Park Service protects the pristine air, lava formations, limber pine, and other livingthings at Craters of the Moon. This trail is wheelchair accessible. North Crater Trail - 3 miles, strenuous; This trail is especially interesting forits variety. It is also the most strenuous. The trail traverses North Crater and drops into thecrater mouth, the origin point for the North Crater flow. Notice that the northwest flank ofNorth Crater is missing. An eruption tore the wall apart, and a series of a'a flows rafted thefragments away. The trail continues to the rim of Big Craters before descending to theSpatter Cones. If you have two vehicles, leave one at the Spatter Cones parking lot to avoidhiking back on the same trail. Inferno Cone - 1/2 mile, strenuous; The trail to the top of Inferno Cone is steep,but rewards you with panoramic views of the Great Rift, Snake River Plain, and PioneerMountains. On clear days you may see the Teton Range, 100 miles to the east. The Caves Trail - 1 to 2 miles, moderate; On a summer day, the cool, dark lavatubes along the Caves Trail offer a radical change from the brilliant light and blistering heaton the surface. Indian Tunnel, one-half mile from the parking lot, is the largest cave and theeasiest to visit. Skylights permit enough daylight to enter so that you do not need aflashlight. The other caves are pitch black, with uneven floors and low ceilings. Be sure youhave a good flashlight for every person in your group, and that everyone is physicallycapable before exploring these caves. A hat and long pants will protect your head and legsfrom the sharp rock. A brochure available at the trailhead provides further informationabout the lava tubes. Big Craters From The Spatter Cones - 1/2 mile, moderate; A paved pathleads uphill from the parking lot to the crater rim, the best place on the Loop Drive to see thecraters for which the park is named. This hike is an excellent alternative for those notwishing to hike all the way from the North Crater Flow parking lot (see North Crater Traildescription). The Wilderness Trail To Echo Crater - 6 miles, moderate; You willhave a sense of solitude as you travel into the Craters of the Moon Wilderness. The trailheadis 75 yards from the parking lot back along the road. The trail goes over Broken Top cindercone and crosses a pahoehoe flow close to Buffalo Caves. The caves are located 1,000 feetnorth of the trail against the south side of Broken Top. You then pass a series of lava treesand several cinder cones before reaching Echo Crater. Some people backpack to this pointand camp overnight. Backcountry permits are required for overnight trips and are availablefree of charge at the visitor center. The Tree Molds - 3 miles, moderate; The trail winds through shrubs and stands oflimber pine before reaching the edge of the Blue Dragon Flow. While still molten, this lavaflow knocked down and ignited trees. The charred trees left impressions in the lava rock. Inother places, the trees remained standing as the lava encased them, leaving vertical molds inthe cooling lava.

Weather at the Monument

Marmots spend a large part of each year in a state of deep slumber. During both theblistering summer heat and bitter cold of winter, they lie curled in rocky burrows, theirmetabolism, heartbeat, and breathing at a virtual standstill. They thereby cleverly avoid theextremes of weather and climate which prevail at Craters of the Moon. By conservingenergy in winter and water in summer, they ensure their own survival.

Visitors to Craters of the Moon must be prepared for the same extremes. The intensesummer sun bakes the black lava, generating surface temperatures of 175 degrees F and airtemperatures in the 90's. Winds are daily occurrence, especially in the afternoon, and mayreach 15 to 30 miles per hour.

Fall and spring are milder, with unsettled weather. If you can, plan to visit in late May orJune, when delicate flowers burst to life against the black backdrop of the cinder slopes: pinkdwarf monkeyflower, yellow dwarf buckwheat, white bitterroot, and many others.

Winter transforms the Craters of the Moon landscape into a strange juxtaposition of ruggedblack and soft white. The National Park Service grooms the Loop Drive for cross countryskiing when snow conditions permit, offering those on skis or snowshoes a way to experiencethe solitude and silence of the lava fields.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 19 Dec 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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