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Exploring the moon without leaving Idaho: Craters Of The Moon National Monument

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
Craters Of The Moon National Monument

On a bright sunny day in late September I was traveling along the back highways of Southern Idaho. This part of Idaho is somewhat desolate with low rolling hills, limited vegetation and light-years away from the lushness of Northern Idaho that I call home. As my car crested a small hill I was taken back by what had folded out before me. It was a sea of rippling black lava frozen in time. I stopped my car in a small pullout to get a closer look of the lava that has pushed its way up through the Earth’s surface 15,000 years ago. The warm wind whipped across my face as I stood on the side of the highway. Looking out as far as my eyes could see was The Craters Of the Moon National Monument.

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
Craters Of The Moon National Monument

I have never been to the moon. I am guessing neither have you, unless you are one of the twelve astronauts that have. For the rest of us, visiting the moon is probably out of the cards. Although with people like Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic program, space travel is slowly becoming a possibility. Who knows maybe the moon is next? Granted space travel will most likely cost a couple piles of dollars to get there. So in the spirit of saving dollars we can visit Craters Of The Moon National Monument. Sure there are some major differences like we have gravity, the footprints of Neil Armstrong won’t be there and then there is the lack of being able to drive a moon rover around. But there is still some fun to be had.

On the day I arrived to Craters of the Moon National Monument I was running late, which is the only form of running you will see me do. By the time I reached the visitor center it was on the verge of closing for the day.  Films and exhibits about the monument can be found at the visitor center as well as joining a ranger led walk, you know if you arrive in time. With the visitor center closing I missed out on the ranger walk and the exhibits but I was able to partake in the 7 mile (11.26 km) scenic loop road through the park.

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
North Crater Flow

The monument was established in 1924 and gained national recognition from a magazine writer, Robert Limbert.  Limbert referred to the area as Craters of the Moon.

Along the scenic road you will find small cinder cones or volcanic vents where the lava came up during the eruptions. You will not find the typical mountain-peaked type volcanoes at this monument. The type of eruptions that happened at Craters of the Moon are called fissure eruptions.  Basically lava came up through the cracks of the earth’s surface and flowed across the ground.

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
North Crater Flow

My first stop along the scenic road was the North Crater Flow.  I found a paved, relatively flat trail, leading me through the lava flows that are the youngest flows in the park, approximately 2100 years old. The trail is only 0.3 miles (0.48 km) and can be done quickly unless you are me, one who stops often to take photographs of everything.

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
The Inferno Cone

Probably the most impressive stop along the scenic road is the Inferno Cone. The approach is somewhat daunting as what stands before you is a steep hill covered in blackness. The wind had picked up at this point and only increased as I ascended up the hillside.  It is quite windy here most of the time, although winds supposedly die down in the evening.

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
From the top of the Inferno Cone

Once I got to the top I had a vast view of the entire park and beyond. Vegetation was sparse with a few sage brush and green trees dotting the rolling hills. The Inferno Cone trail is 0.4 miles (0.64 km) with an elevation of 6181 ft (1884 m).  Don’t be surprised if she takes the wind out of you as you hike yourself up to the top.

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
Big Sink Overlook

My next stop was the Big Sink Overlook. This stop allows you to take off into the park on the Wilderness Trail, approximately 4 miles (6.43 km).  The trail continues into the actual wilderness or you can take the Broken Top Trail, a 1.8 mile (2.89 km) loop trail that circles a cinder cone, back to the parking lot. If you do continue into the wilderness rangers ask that you stay within the park boundary lines.  You will also need to obtain a free park permit from the visitors center for any overnight stays. There are 750,000 acres of land within the monument, so that should keep you busy for a while!

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
The trail out to the cave area

My last stop was at the Cave Area. The 1.6 mile (2.57 km) paved trail takes you out into the meat of the lava flow where caves, or lava tubes developed.  For visitors who wish to explore the caves a permit is required.  Permits can be obtained from the visitor center. As I am a law-abiding citizen I did not enter any of the caves as I did not have a permit.  I can not say the same goes true for the other visitors although no one was checking for permits.

Craters Of The Moon National Monument
Looking into one of the caves, or lava tubes

I walked around the cave area watching the heads of the cave explorers pop their heads above the surface like curious prairie dogs.  And while “crimes” can happen everywhere, I saw most often inappropriate footwear to be traipsing around in a cave. Like I saw someone in Teva sandals! Eh, probably not the best idea as the surface of the flows are actually quite jagged and sharp to the touch. But hey, it was their toes, not mine, so I kept my worried toe thoughts to myself.

Craters Of The Moon National Monument is located at 1266 Craters Loop Road near Arco Idaho. The park is open all year however the loop road is usually closed late November to mid-April due to snow and mud. Park fees are $10 USD for cars, $5 for motorcycles or included if you hold the America The Beautiful Pass. A first come first serve campground is located near the visitor center for $15 USD during the summer and $8 during the off-season. There are no services at this campground. The nearest town with services is Arco, about 18 miles (29 km) southwest or the nearest city is Idaho Falls 83 miles (135 km).

Craters Of The Moon National Monument

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