We visited the moon! Well at least Idaho’s version of it. I’m embarrassed to admit this but the Rootless and Roaming Ranger (our truck) is not yet equipped for space travel. With that being said, we had to opt to visit Craters of the Moon in South-Central Idaho as opposed to visiting that big floating rock in the sky that likes to come out at night and play with the tides. After spending two days and nights at Craters of the Moon National Monument I’m not sure that we didn’t land on the moon. It is another world! Thanks to the masterful work of a series of volcanos, there is a landscape left behind that will leave you scratching your head in bewilderment. 15,000 years ago, oozing lava from a collection of deep fissures began to flow across the land forming miles of crevasses, caves, cones, and craters (volcanos apparently like alliteration). Even as little as 2,100 years ago, a mere blink in time from a geological perspective, sheets of liquid-hot lava flowed from fissures to put the final artistic touches on the landscape. The result is a wonderland.
Being able to hike across these lava fields is a unique experience to say to least. The Park Service has done a great job of maintaining the natural beauty of the 750,000 acres of land while also making exploration of it accessible and safe. There are many different trails varying in length from 0.2 miles to 4 miles that allow for you to walk on the moon while staying securely grounded on Earth. As you walk through the desolate land of fissures and rifts, lava tubes and kipukas, and spatter cones and cinder cones it won’t seem possible for life to survive here. But life always finds a way and there are many plants and animals around for viewing. Take notice of the lichen that is scattered about on the rock, the sagebrush that sweeps across the lava fields, the occasional monkeyflower that somehow forced its way through the charred rock to blossom, and the triple twisted pine trees that are so weathered and decrepit you will mistake them for being dead.
Once you have seen it all from above it’s time to go below. There are five caves known as lava tubes to descend into. The Indian Tunnel was our favorite. It is vast and filled with fallen volcanic rock that has collected in great piles on the floor. Large openings in the ceiling allow just enough light to penetrate through to make visibility clear. In place of bats, rock doves perch on the hardened lava formations and watch your every move. For the more adventurous types with the ability to contort body parts to fit through small openings we recommend Boy Scout Cave. Once inside take a deep breath and enjoy the cool damp air. Just be careful on the slick floor as the cave retains ice year-round. To see these caves of molten stone up close is a true privilege.
I feel I must mention hiking once more. The North Crater trail is amazing. It’s a leg burner with steep inclines testing your lungs for the majority of the hike but the world you enter into will distract you from any pain you may be experiencing. You really are walking on an alien planet. I think that geologist, Clarence R. King described it best on an 1871 survey as “labyrinths of blackened ruins”. The fragile landscape crunches and creaks under your feet as you make the climb up the weird land. Be cautious of footing as one careless step can send you tumbling into a colossal crater or destroy a delicate piece of protected land. What your eyes are taking in will not make sense. At any point it feels as if a savage creature will emerge from a crevasse and attack. Our experience was extra intense because the air was thick with smoke thanks to the wildfires sweeping across the Northwest. The hanging haze made the moon come to life. No savage creatures attacked from the shadows; only the occasional chipmunk would appear only to quickly disappear again.
Located in Nowhere, Idaho… I mean Arco, Idaho you will probably be putting a few miles in to reach Craters of the Moon no matter where in the world you are coming from. No need to worry though; there is a top-notch campground at the monument to rest up at. I can promise you that there is no other campground like it. There are 42 spots available that can accommodate any size trailer, camper, tent, or weird wooden box home bolted to the back of a Ford Ranger. The campsites sit within the lava field and are sectioned off by piles of large lava boulders. Wonderful trails even tie right into the campground to make exploration easy. And at only $15 a night your wallet will be happy with you. Most of all you will be happy. Try not to smile as the sun sets for all to see over the west side of camp. Any spot has a direct view of the burnt orange sphere of heat as it dips behind a distant mountain leaving an array of colors splattered on the peculiar land known as Craters of the Moon.