Craters for the Curious

Step back in time with an exploration of East Idaho's otherworldly volcanic rockscape

Published in the June 2022 Issue Published online: Jun 09, 2022 Discover Idaho Falls: Parks and Recreation, East Idaho Outdoors, Outdoors, Road Trips Steve Smede
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FUN FACT: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Yellowstone National Park are almost sixes in terms of travel distance and time from Idaho Falls. But for whatever reason (fame, marketing, the constant allure of volcanism, those funny-looking cows), the big Y gets the lion’s share of attention. That’s just one more reason to opt for Craters and its sprawling vistas of lava, sage and cinder—you can have it without fighting the crowds.

You won’t find any iconic geysers, waterfalls or towering mountains in this neck of the woods. But then again, you also won’t experience any smothering crowds or increased daily fees, either.

Originally named for its uncanny resemblance to the lunar surface, the landscape here has served as a “stand-in” for other planetary bodies. In fact, the space exploration community has had an interest in the area since 1969 when Apollo 12 astronauts made a jaunt out to the Idaho lava fields in an effort to learn more about volcanic geology and what to expect when they set foot on the real deal some 240,000 miles away. Even today, the lava landscape serves as a research venue for NASA as plans move forward to visit Mars and beyond.

According to the National Parks Service, the Craters area began oozing, flowing and erupting about 15,000 years ago and cooled its jets only 2,000 years ago.

As a result, there is a whole suite of volcanic features to study here, but for most adventurers, it’s all about the caves. More accurately, these features are lava “tubes.” NPS literature notes that “when fluid, molten lava flowed out of the ground, it behaved like a stream of water working its way downhill. But soon the ‘stream’ surface cooled and hardened. This crust then insulated the molten lava inside, enabling it to keep flowing. The molten lava inside the crust eventually flowed out, leaving the crust as the walls of a lava tube or cave.”

A few of these caves are open to exploration, and feature some surprising features. Stalactites, for example, were formed by molten lava as it dripped down before cooling. (Just think of hell’s equivalent to an icicle.)

Before you get too carried away, take a little time at the COTM visitor’s center. There you’ll find displays and a short video that explains the park’s lava phenomena, biology, history, and the geologic processes that brought it all together. Conducted walks and evening programs are available on a set schedule.

One of the more amazing sights here is a formation called the Devil’s Orchard. It’s a conglomeration of lava fragments that stand like “islands in a sea of cinders,” as the NPS website puts it. There is a half-mile hiking trail, which is barrier-free to provide universal access.

As for the aforementioned caves/tubes, some key names to remember are Dewdrop, Boy Scout, Beauty, and Surprise. Don’t forget to bring a heavy-duty flashlight or lantern. (Note: Due to sensitive environmental issues, some of these caves may no longer be open to the public.)

For more information, the best online resource for this area seems to be www.nps.gov/crmo. Fees run $20 per vehicle, or $10 per person if you’re biking or hoofing it. If you’re planning more than one visit, consider the annual pass for $35.

For more information, contact the park at 208-527-3257.

Camping at Craters

It's not your typical camping ambiance, but if you’re interested in a different kind of overnight adventure, COTM has its own 42-site campground adjacent to the visitor center.

According to the National Park Service, sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Rates are $15 per night. Visitors can just self register at the campground (no reservations) for the campsite of their choice. Payment by credit card only.

A separate group campsite is located behind Sunset Cinder Cone about .75 miles up a gravel road on the north side of U.S. Highway 20/26/93. The fee for the Group Campground is $30 per night for groups of 30 people or less. This campground is available by reservation only through the www.recreation.gov website.

Craters After Dark

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has granted silver tier International Dark Sky Park status to Craters of the Moon National Monument. Craters of the Moon was designated a national monument in 1924 and provides visitors opportunities to view a spectacular volcanic landscape. The stunning scenery and expansive landscapes of Craters of the Moon don’t end when the sun sets.

“The Milky Way stretching across the park’s incredibly dark night sky is a sight many visitors will never forget,” said Craters of the Moon Superintendent Wade Vagias. “With this designation, the International Dark-Sky Association recognizes the importance of the natural darkness found here.”

Park staff have made special efforts to ensure that park lighting is “night-sky friendly” with bulbs and fixtures that focus light downward instead of into the sky. Natural darkness is also recognized in park management documents which clearly state the value of night skies and the park’s commitment to protect them.

Source material: Ted Stout, Chief of Interpretation and Education for Craters of the Moon National Monument

A Lavascape Closer to Home

Craters of the Moon s about 130 miles from Idaho Falls. Not bad for an all-day adventure, but you can get a taste of COTM’s volcanic wonders just 20 miles away with a trip to Hell’s Half Acre.

If you have the motivation and fortitude to explore it, its unique lava trail system is open to non-motorized recreation activities only.

“Trail system” is actually a relative term here. For reasonable access and safe traversing (a constant factor for my age and now-limited mobility), a better bet is to enter the 150 square-mile tract from the I-15 rest stop exit between Idaho Falls and Blackfoot. Facilities abound, including paved, wheelchair accessible paths, safety rails, picnic tables and lots of informative signage.

On the west side, however, expect a far more primitive experience. There are no actual trails to speak of. Your navigational keys are akin to the beacons of Gondor from Lord of the Rings—marked not by fires, but by the color-coded tops of 8-foot tall poles. A short loop around the lavascape is marked in blue; a longer one is marked in red.

Immersion in this unique environment can be breathtaking and full of photo ops. Our favorite features are the deep crevices, some of which harbor a cool, rich micro-climate filled with colorful lichens, moss, ferns and other vegetation.

Volcanic features are made up of a porous mix of domes, pits, lava tubes and caves.

For more details, be sure to check out the BLM page at www.blm.gov/visit. From there you’ll find links and maps to the study area as well as the trail system.

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