There are times in your life when you look around and feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. There are times in your life when you look around and feel like you are on another planet. When you visit Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, on another planet . . .
We left Boise, ID on the morning of July 26th to drive to Idaho Falls, ID. Our plan was to spend most of the day at Craters of the Moon. We knew there probably wouldn’t be too many places to stop along the way, so we packed some food for the road. Following Route 20 from Boise, we retraced the historic Goodale’s Cutoff section of the Oregon Trail. However we were focused on our lunar mission, and missed all of the historic markers. As we drove east, most of the traffic turned north on Idaho 75 toward the resort towns of Sun Valley and Ketchum. We saw sagebrush, dirt, creeks, mountains, and the occasional herd, farm, or town as the remote landscape became even more remote. After three hours of driving, the soft tan, green, and brown colors that dominated the rural landscape were overwhelmed by an all-consuming jagged darkness.
Earlier in our 10,000 mile roadtrip, we visited Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and previously we have visited Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. While both of those sites are impressive, they do not compare to the surreal scale of Craters of the Moon.
“Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve encompasses the entire Great Rift volcanic rift zone. It contains a huge concentration of volcanic landforms and structures along the more than 50-mile zone of fractures and eruptions. A composite field made up of about 60 lava flows and 25 cones, the Craters of the Moon Lava Field is the largest of its type in the lower 48 states.” – Craters of the Moon NMP
Our first stop was the Visitor Center. We saw a Park Ranger getting ready to give a “Patio Talk” and sat down to learn about Craters of the Moon’s history, natural features, and unique plants and animals. After the talk, we picked up our park map and a cave permit so that we could safely explore the lava caves. We also learned about their Junior Ranger and special Junior “Lunar” Ranger programs and received activity books. Junior Ranger programs are offered at most National Park Service sites. For the program, children typically complete an activity book as well as participate in other activities (e.g. attending a Park Ranger talk, going on a hike, etc.) to receive a unique badge, patch, or sometimes both. Craters of the Moon’s Junior “Lunar” Ranger program is the only one in the National Park Service and focuses on the park, space, and space travel. In 1969, astronauts Alan Shepherd, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan, and Joe Engle visited the park while training for their lunar mission.
“The Moon has this peculiar eerie beauty, like Craters of the Moon, that is magnificent . . . they excite your imagination.” – Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 Astronaut
Now that we had our map, cave permit, and books and had already completed our first mission of attending a Ranger talk, we were ready to take a walk “on the moon”.
Lava, Hoary Asters, and Dwarf Buckwheat
We began our tour of Craters of the Moon with a drive along the scenic seven mile Loop Road. Craggy lava. Smooth lava. Dusty lava. Rocky lava. Everywhere. The kids broke out their Junior Ranger and Junior Lunar Ranger books and started working on them as we explored.
Early settlers along the Oregon Trail who passed through this region referred to it as the “Devil’s Vomit” and it was easy to see why.
However, as we drove through the thrown and burnt earth, there was beauty as well. Flowering plants found footholds in the lava to grow and flourish. White fluffy dwarf buckwheat plants popped against the red and black harshness of the lava. Wispy hoary asters emerged to bring curves and color to the blocky darkness. Everywhere stubby trees and scraggly bushes survived to add their browns and greens until the land that at first looked dead, showed signs of resilient life.
Our first stop along the Loop Road was Inferno Cone, a massive freestanding cinder cone with a 6,181 foot summit. We parked the minivan and began our ascent up the relatively short walk to the summit (0.5 mile round trip). If you’ve never walked up a cinder cone, imagine climbing up a giant gravel dune – our feet slipped and sank with every step. Adding to the challenge were strong sustained winds that swept across the barren landscape.
Everyone climbed up the steep side of the cinder cone, some easier than others. After a few minutes of walking and dealing with the strong winds, the littlest ones were ready to be carried. Trudging on, we finally made it to the summit, or so we thought. Despite our hope, the true summit was further up the cinders and into even stronger winds. At this point, we decided the littlest ones were done and took a break on the side of the cinder cone. The older kids pleaded to go on. So they gave us their hats, we gave them the “good camera,” and we let them loose to climb the last little bit to the top.
The older kids ran down from the summit screaming. Amazing! Incredible! Awesome! Insane! They told us about everything they could see and how the wind at the summit was so strong, they could not even stand upright! We gave them back their hats and while the wind tried to steal one, we were able to grab it just in time. Having conquered the Inferno Cone, we walked, skidded, and slid down the path back to the minivan. Now that we had climbed to to the top of the lava, we were ready to climb under it.
When we were at the Visitor Center, we noticed that there was an afternoon Park Ranger led Cave Walk. We left Inferno Cone and skipped a few of the stops so that we would get to the Caves parking lot in time for the Cave Walk. A large group had already gathered and we quickly got out of the car to catch up with them. The Caves Trail was not stroller friendly, so everyone did their best on the very uneven asphalt/lava path. As we walked along, the Ranger explained how the lava “caves” (actually lava tubes) formed and we saw several areas where the caves had collapsed over time.
As the Ranger kept stopping to talk, the youngest children grew restless. So we decided to scout ahead. After a short hike, we made it to Indian Tunnel, the largest lava cave at Craters of the Moon. We followed the steep stairs down into the tunnel. Giant chunks of lava were everywhere. Carrying the youngest, we climbed over the rocks and explored the tunnel.
Eventually, the Cave Walk group caught up to us in Indian Tunnel. As the Ranger started to talk about the Tunnel, a bat woke up and began to strafe the crowd. After ducking bats and exploring a little more, we were ready to check out one last cave before heading back to the Visitor Center to get the kids’ Junior Ranger badges and patches.
On the way back, we stopped at Dewdrop Cave. Unlike Indian Tunnel, which is a long tunnel with openings from various ceiling collapses over the years, Dewdrop Cave is mostly a big open pit from a ceiling collapse with small side tunnels leading off of it.
As we climbed around the cave, it almost felt as though the rocks were watching us . . .
Finishing with Dewdrop Cave, we rejoined the Ranger and Cave Walk group one last time to return to the parking lot. As we drove to the Visitor Center, all of the children finished up the last of their Junior Ranger and Junior Lunar Ranger activities. We made it back just before closing. All of the kids were sworn in as Junior Rangers and picked up their badges and patches. Since there were still a few hours of daylight left and Idaho Falls wasn’t that far away, we decided to take one last drive around the loop road and stop at a few of the sights we had skipped earlier in the day.
The highlight of our second trip around the loop road were the spatter cones.
“Like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, the spatter cone chain at Craters of the Moon best symbolizes the essence of this special place. Created during a dwindling stage of an eruption, the spatter cones formed as hot lumps of lava were thrown a short distance into the air only to fall back to earth around a small central vent. As the still molten blobs landed on top of each other, they cooled and adhered to nearby pieces to form the walls of what could be considered a mini-volcano.” – Craters of the Moon NMP
By the time we arrived at the spatter cones, the two youngest had fallen asleep, exhausted from the earlier adventures. We parked the minivan and left our oldest to watch the kids while we ran up to take a look at the nearest spatter cone.
The rough burnt earth was molded like painted Styrofoam in a fantasy amusement park landscape. We walked up a short path that snaked around the spatter cone until a tight turn, and suddenly we were inside our own personal volcano. We quickly went back to the minivan and the older kids, who were still awake, ran up the path to see it for themselves. They were equally impressed.
Onward to Idaho Falls
As we left the Spatter Cones, we stopped for one last look at the seemingly infinite fields of rocky and rolly lava.
We left Craters of the Moon and drove through even more remote parts of Idaho, before we made it to our hotel in Idaho Falls for the night.
At Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, the Earth decided to be Jackson Pollock and paint the land with lava. Heavy drips here, smooth brush strokes there, and every once in a while, a drop of color from the plants and flowers. The land is random, but there is a flow. The land is harsh, but it lets you in. The land is dark, but it makes the colors bright. The land is dead, but life is resilient.
Photo credits: Full Van Fun