Idaho is home to an incredible variety of landscapes. Up North, you’ll find beautiful mountain forests and lakes. Down South, you’ll find grasslands and rolling valleys and rivers. Idaho has it all. But, there’s something a little different near the middle of Idaho, and it’s unlike anything else that you’ve ever seen on earth before. In fact, it might just remind you of the moon.
Craters of the Moon is an incredible geological and volcanic National Monument. The actual park covers over a thousand square miles, and the lava flows and fields make up a large portion of that. The entire park is about the size of Rhode Island. While you won’t find a massive volcano here, you will find 25 different volcanic cones. The variety of lava flows, cinder cones, spatter cones, and caves are absolutely astounding, and you could easily spend days exploring all that the park has to offer. Or, you could take a day and drive around a seven-mile loop.
The Seven Stops of the Tour
The drive itself takes around 30 minutes. But you aren’t just going to drive through Craters of the Moon and be on your way. You can’t. There’s too much to see and to explore. If you want to experience the best of what Craters of the Moon has to offer, taking this seven-mile tour is the best way to do it.
Stop #1- The Visitor’s Center
This is where your tour will start. You can watch films on the history of the park, enjoy exhibits, and even listen to park rangers give presentations. You’ll probably spend about 15 minutes here, but it’s a great peek into the past, and the starting point for your tour of Craters of the Moon.
Stop #2- The North Crater Flow
When you stop here, you’ll have a couple of options. There’s a short trail, around a quarter of a mile, that will take you across one of the youngest lava flows in the park (it’s around 2,000 years old). You’ll visit fragments of two monoliths. They were carried here, like rafts, by the lava flows. If you want a longer hike, take the three-and-a-half-mile trail that will take you through the vent of the North Crater, beyond the Big Craters, and to the Spatter Cones.
Stop #3- The Devil’s Orchard
Here, you’ll find a unique feature. There are lava fragments that stand alone, like islands in the ocean of cinders and lava rock. There’s a short hike here, about half a mile, that will bring you closer to the features of Devil’s Orchard. While here, you’ll learn about what’s being done to protect the park, and how people have impacted Craters of the Moon.
Stop #4- The Inferno Cone
Black cinder. It almost looks like fine gravel or sand, but instead its remnants of the volcanic past of Craters of the Moon. You can either enjoy the spectacular views from the nearby overlook, or take a steep half mile hike up the cone for an even more incredible view.
Stop #5- The Spatter Cones
These are essentially miniature volcanoes. They were formed when gas pressure got too high, and caused jets of fire and molten rock to shoot thousands of feet into the air. As the molten rocks cooled, and fell back down to the earth, they created these almost sponge-like cones.
Stop #6- Tree Molds and Broken Top Loop
To get the most out of this area, you will need to do a bit of hiking. But the views are worth it. Take the Tree Molds Trail, about two miles, and you can see imprints of trees that were trapped in the lava. The Broken Top Loop, just under two miles, leads you around a cinder cone. Finally, the Wilderness Trail, the longest hike at four miles, lets you experience lava trees. These are molds of trees that were upright when the lava burned them.
Stop #7- The Caves
Your final stop before you reach the end of your loop tour. There are four different lava tube caves here. You’ll take a path across half a mile of lava to reach them, but it’s definitely worthwhile. These lava tubes were once molten rivers of lava flowing through the ground, and as the outer layer of lava cooled, the tubes were created. To explore the caves you’ll need good shoes, a flashlight (except for the Indian Tunnel), and a free permit. The permit is required to ensure that bat population is protected from a rampant fungal disease that is killing millions of bats.
A Weird and Strange Land
Craters of the Moon may look like a desolate landscape, devoid of any life. But as you explore the park, you’ll discover that Craters of the Moon is anything but devoid of life. It’s a vibrant and thriving ecosystem, even though thousands of years ago, this was a place of rivers of lava and jets of fire reaching high into the sky.