Ever since I first heard the name Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, it has been a place of wonderment and intrigue. As a young boy in the 1960‘s, I was fascinated with our country’s space race to the Moon. From the moment my mother lugged our only black and white television into the classroom so my classmates and I could watch Alan Shepard ride a rocket to the fringe of space to that sleepy summer night in 1969 when lying on the living room floor with my father while watching Neil Armstrong take “one giant leap for mankind”, I have dreamed of someday visiting the Moon. I know it’s a pipe dream, but maybe by going to this park I can get some sense of what it would be like to stand on the surface of the Moon.
Apollo astronauts did not train for their mission at Craters of the Moon. It is, however, one of many places NASA sent Apollo astronauts to study geology. Having the skill to identify rocks, especially volcanic rocks, was important for selecting the most desirable specimens to bring back to Earth. The six Apollo Moon missions brought back over 800 pounds of rocks.
It was just a 30-minute drive from our campground in Picabo to the visitor center at Craters of the Moon. As we neared the entrance to the park, we began to see the black lava fields created from thousands of years of volcanic eruptions — the most recent about 2000 years ago. We stopped at a pullout on Highway 20 to take in the view. The 750,000 acres park stretches as far as the eye can see. It is an unworldly and desolate landscape. The many layers and flow lines in the rock gave no doubt this was once fluid lava. You might find it interesting to look at the Google Earth satellite image showing the black lava field stain on the desert.
Something you might ask when visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is “Where is the volcano?” All the lava and no volcano in sight. There are a few cinder cones and splatter cones that rise above the surface, but you won’t see a volcanic mountain like Mount St. Helens. That is because Craters of the Moon is located on the Idaho Great Rift where the Earth’s crust is pulled and stretched creating deep fissures. Underground pressure escapes through the fissures preventing bulging and upheave. Eruptions are therefore milder when they occur.
Our first stop inside the park, as usual, was the Visitor Center. Of course, we purchased our standard souvenirs and stamped our passport book, but we also had another motive for stopping. We wanted to get a cave permit so we could explore the lava tubes. There are five lava tube caves in the park. The cave permit allows self-guided access to all of them. The process consist of a ranger providing a brief description of the caves, reviewing safety concerns, and educating visitors about white-nose syndrome — a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats across the country. Did you know that white-nose syndrome spores can remain on your clothes for years even after several washings? That was news to me. Luckily we were wearing clothes bought after our last cave tour, so no worries of carrying spores into the caves. With the permit in hand, we continued into the park.
Across from the Visitor Center is Lava Flow Campground. With 42 sites, we originally thought we would try to stay here. Two problems with that thought. First of all, there are no hook-ups. We felt it was time to have hook-ups after not having any for a while. Secondly, it is a first-come-first-served campground and we didn’t want to take the chance of not finding a spot. Well, as it turns out, there were spots available — not a lot, but some. Most sites were national park small, though. We only saw a couple of sites we thought we could fit in. We concluded we were quite happy with our decision to have electric and water at Picabo Angler Silver Creek RV Park, even though it is 30 minutes away.
We drove further into the park and stopped at Inferno Cone — a large cinder cone with a trail to the top. The trail goes straight up the slope rather than the easier switchbacks you often find on steep hikes. It was a short, albeit strenuous walk that only took us about 10 minutes. The top was flat and had a tree and sagebrush growing there. The 360-degree view was pretty awesome. From this elevated vantage point, we saw lava flow fields and cinder cones spread across the landscape.
Next we went to Snow Cone and Splatter Cones where a paved trail took us to a platform where we could look down inside the cone. Think of splatter cones as miniature volcanos rarely getting more that 50 feet tall. They are created toward the end of an eruption as the lava becomes thick and sticky as it cools. The gas from the fissures splatter the lava upward creating a mound. The inside of some cones are deep and remain shaded allowing snow and ice to remain all year long, hence the name of the cone pictured below.
Next stop was the caves parking lot where we started our 1.6 mile round trip hike to the caves. A paved trail weaved across the top of the lava field where we got an up close look at the different formations. It was very interesting and truly a unique experience.
Going through the lava tube caves can be challenging. It can require crawling and squeezing through narrow spaces at times. Flashlights are a must have. After our earlier conversation with the park ranger, we chose a cave that would fit our abilities. Indian Tunnel at 30 feet tall and 800 feet long is the largest of the park’s caves. Steel stairs going down inside makes for easy ingress. There are a couple places where the roof has caved in. These places, referred to as skylights, are good for allowing light to come through but it creates an obstacle of debris that needs to be traversed in order to pass through.
Standing inside a lava tube was a first for us, so we took time to look around and experience the moment. It was amazing to think that a river of lava once flowed through it. We traveled the entire 800 foot length carefully navigating over the rock piles where, at the end, we found an opening in the ceiling. Climbing up and out we emerged at a sea of lava rock — we saw nothing but black rock in every direction. An unsettling feeling arose as we squinted our eyes and wondered where do we go from here. Then we noticed the post — the narrow inconspicuous post strategically placed to show the way back to the trail.
After our spelunking experience, we went to the designated picnic area for lunch. “Well this is’t very good”, we thought. Although there were picnic tables in the shade of some trees, there was not a view. That’s not our style. So we circled around and went back to the Splatter Cone parking lot. We backed into a spot, put down the tailgate, unfolded our chairs and had a wonderful view of the lava fields while we ate. Ah! Now this is better.
After lunch, it was time for a hike. Time to walk off some calories. We chose the Tree Molds Trail. It is a 2.2 mile out and back hike to an area where we saw some – you guessed it – tree molds. Tree molds are created when lava flows around trees, either standing or lying, creating a cast of the tree. I enjoyed the hike, it had some interesting views, but the tree molds were not that impressive. It looked like any other hole in the ground. One mold of a fallen tree was the only one I found interesting.
We spent about 7 hours at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. It was a fantastic experience. Though we did not do everything, we climbed a cinder cone, explored a lava tube cave, and we hiked across a lava field. We saw a good portion of the park and experienced much of its beauty. The next morning Grammi and I discussed whether or not we should return for more, but ultimately we chose to do something else. We were content with our experience.
What we did the second day was go to another cave. It is not a part of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, but it was part of our overall experience in the area. For a $12.00 per person fee, we went to the privately owned and operated Shoshone Ice Caves where we browsed a small museum with Native American artifacts and took a guided tour inside a 1000 feet long lava tube cave. The main attraction comes from the cave’s temperature remaining below freezing all year long. Jackets are recommended as eighty stairs go down to a river of ice. A walkway that hangs from cables attached to the cave’s ceiling allows visitors to pass just above the ice. I felt a little trepidation as we walked across the catwalk, but it was worth the risk as the underground ice was cool the see — no pun intended.
One final thought about Craters of the Moon. It is not designated a National Park, but rather a National Monument and Preserve. There has been some debate about giving Craters of the Moon the higher status of National Park. I say “why not?” It meets all the eligibility requirements. It is as special a place, if not more, as any other National Parks we have been to. The problem, as I see it, is a National Park needs to be enacted by Congress whereas a National Monument can be established with the stroke of a pen from the President. One signature verses the consensus of many creates a political obstacle. Hopefully, someday, there will be agreement to give Craters of the Moon its just due and the state of Idaho their first National Park.
Oh! One more thing — I now know what it is like to stand on the surface of the moon.
Until next time — Happy days and safe travels.