When we (sadly) left the Tetons, we were optimistic about what Idaho had to offer. However, we weren’t entirely sure what Idaho had to offer. We had a couple of places on our list, such as seeing the Salmon River, but other than that, we were just going to look at the map and go to whatever we thought looked interesting.
One of those places, was Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.
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Located in southern Idaho, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve has been called “a weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself,” by President Calvin Coolidge. He was not wrong, and in 1924, Coolidge used the 1906 Antiquities Act to create Craters of the Moon National Monument. Area was included over time and in 2002 Congress established a 750,000-acre boundary into a national preserve. The most recent volcanic eruption occurred here only 2,000 years ago, from the deep fissures that cross the Snake River Plain, and geologists believe that future eruptions are likely.
We didn’t really know much about this place, and the internet/cell service was being really spotty, but we were able to point ourselves in the general direction and find a campground not far away. The next morning, we got up and headed on over. It did not disappoint.
Craters of the Moon is actually a pretty cool place, and you can experience all the hikes in one day, which makes it an excellent side trip to whatever else you have planned in southern Idaho. There is one big loop that has seven hikes, one of which takes you to a few caves.
There is a Junior Ranger program here that was quick and easy for the kids to complete, and they then became Lunar Rangers, which I thought was adorable. The booklets were filled out in the car, in between the hikes, and the booklet for the younger kids requires some coloring, so it helps to have some crayons. We always travel with a pack or two of Twistables, and each kid has a nature journal to document their own experiences.
The video at the visitors center was very informative, and I think without it, we would not have appreciated some of the different formations found at the park. For instance, there are two Hawaiian words for two types of lava. One is for the smooth, rippling, rope-type of lava called pahoehoe and the other is for the thicker, crumbling type of lava (that looks like crunched up Oreos) called ‘a’a. Craters of the moon offers great examples of both, as well as Spatter Cones and Cinder Cones associated with volcanoes in other parts of the world.
Although the volcanic activity is currently not active, there is quite a bit of ecological diversity at Craters of the Moon. One of the things I found really fascinating is that lichen are the first to grow on these lava rocks. Their growth breaks down the rocks and turns them into soil, which then allows other plants to grow. I love that these beautiful, tiny, seemingly insignificant plants are what turns these huge, jagged rocks into something fertile.
The hikes are all paved (except for one) and easy for pretty much anyone to go on. The one hike that isn’t paved is Stop #4 on the map, Inferno Cone. It is a short, steep climb to the top of a hill, where you can see views of cinder cones. The view up there was really neat, and the kids felt like they had really accomplished something from the hike. It was basically 0.2 miles straight up, so wear your good running shoes! Definitely my favorite hike, while the kids really liked stop #5 (Snow Cone) and stop #2 North Crater Flow, with it’s great examples of pahoehoe and ‘a’a.
Stop #7 is the Cave Area, which is the only hike we didn’t do. In order to access the cave, you must obtain a permit from the visitors center, wear sturdy shoes, and carry a flashlight. These caves are home to bats, so the one rule at Craters of the Moon is to not wear anything that has been worn in any other cave, in order to prevent white nose syndrome: a fatal fungal infection that has been decimating the bat population in North America.
The day we went, the weather was really nice. It was sunny, a little chilly, and very windy. Having said that, take your water bottles because the air is deceptively dry and we were downing water like crazy.
There is a campground on site, providing dry camping. The campground is first come, first served, and they do not take reservations. There is water, restrooms, charcoal grills, and picnic table, but wood fires are prohibited. While we didn’t drive through the campground, the main road takes you right past it and we could see the sites. They can definitely accommodate RVs and trailers, but there is no shade, and they are surrounded by sharp lava rocks. So while the sites are cool, I can’t really imagine my kids enjoying spending the night there. Not much play space.
If you’re ever driving through this area, it is well worth your time to stop and spend some time here. It’s one of those delightful places where you can spend half a day and really experience something special.
Have you ever been to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve? What was your favorite hike? What was the most interesting thing you experienced there? Let me hear from you in the comments section!