Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Have you ever been to a National Monument that you thought that should actually be deemed a National ‘Park’? We think so because this place was absolutely amazing and one of those places you’ve never read or learned about in grammar or high school. The National Park Service’s Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve is located between Shoshone and Arco, Idaho. We stayed two overnights in Arco.
Craters of the Moon formed during eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2000 years ago. Lava erupted from the Great Rift, a series of deep cracks that start near the visitor center and stretch 52 miles (84 km.) to the southeast. During this time the Craters of the Moon lava field grew to cover 618 square miles (1600 square km.).The smaller Wapi and Kings Bowl lava fields also formed along the Great Rift during the most recent eruptive period (approximately 2000 years ago).
Think about that a moment…618 square mile volcanic debris field; about half the size of Rhode Island! That’s HUGE!!
It never dawned on us as we were driving to Arco from New Mexico but the closer we got, we noticed there were masses of solid black lava rock. Once we got to Arco, we saw advertisements for Craters of the Moon and were recommended by others to go.
Craters of the Moon lava field is a striking area of recent volcanic activity within Idaho’s Snake River Plain. The 60 (or more) lava flows in the field range from approximately 15,000 to 2,100 years old. Together the flows cover 1,600 square kilometers (620 square miles) with a total volume of 30 cubic km (7.2 cubic miles). A 3-D view of Craters of the Moon shows the Snake River Plain in relation to the adjacent mountains.
This natural-color image of Craters of the Moon was acquired by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) aboard the Landsat 7 satellite on August 1, 2001. The lava flows appear black, dark brown, and even dark blue. Thick vegetation (forest in the Pioneer Mountains and irrigated fields on the Snake River Plain) is green, while the scrubby vegetation surrounding the lava field appears brown. Scrub-covered areas surrounded by lava flows are called kipukas.
Once we were entered the park, we went inside the visitor center to show Captain Dan’s Access Pass (for non-pass holders, admission is charged), got our informational brochure and map and to have our cancellation stamp put in our National Park Passport. This less-known National Monument and Preserve was a wonderful way to spend the day.
Most of the trails were asphalt paths to deter visitors from walking or disturbing the volcanic sculptures and proof of eruption. A simple step could crush the lava tubes.
Craters of the Moon became known through sheer curiosity. Federal Geologists explored in 1901 and again in 1923. Also in the 1920’s, a taxidermist and Idaho promoter, Robert Limbert, made three epic journeys through the lava. His lectures and articles about these lava lands helped to publicize the area and contributed to the establishment of a National Monument in 1924.
In 1970, Congress designated much of the National Monument as wilderness, one of the first in the National Park System. In 2000, most of the Great Rift and associated lava fields were added to the National Monument. In 2002, Congress established the National Preserve.
Today, the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management along with the American people, share the responsibility for taking care of this special place.
Though it resembles a hardened rock disaster area, signs of wildlife and botany wonders are mysteriously evident. Lichen peppers lava rock natural sculptures and desert-like flowers and plants seed themselves in crevices one wonders how anything could ever grow in them.
We were amazed that some of the Lichens were of a neon or florescent yellow color. Other’s were white and a rusty brown.
Whats amazing is the black lava rock is everywhere. It is hard, very porous, cellular and spiny if you brushed upon it.
So thinking back (I’m about to show my age LOL), this is what our high school tracks that we ran relays and track meets on…and our mothers and coaches picked out of our knees, elbows and hands after tripping over ourselves. So that’s where ‘Cinder Tracks’ came from.
Wildlife that has taken the lava beds…Pikas store dry grasses to eat under the snow in the winter. Summer heat here would kill them but for the cool havens of cracks, crevices and openings beneath the lava surface, they survive.
Sage Grouse and Pygmy Rabbits also take refuge in this unforgiving surfaced habitat. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to really see any wildlife as in the daytime, its very warm. They stay hidden until the sun goes down…and people go away.
Plants, likewise, have adapted too; Antelope Bitterbrush, Prickly Pear Cactus, Big Sagebrush, Lichens, Limber Pine Seedlings, Monkey Flowers, Bitterroots, Paintbrush and Syringas. Kipukas and other Sagebrush covered areas are home to Sage Grouse; famous for their spring mating displays.
We strolled around the half-mile walk around Devils Orchard; Island-like lava fragments stand in a sea of cinders. It truly looked like Satan lived here once.
We climbed to the top of Inferno Cone; a .4 mile steep climb where we could see cinder cones lined up along the Great Rift. Luckily, it wasn’t hot that day because tredging up a black cindered mound would have been excruciating.
Though we chose not to go (it was homeschool family day…LOL), you could obtain a permit, carry a flashlight and explore the caves. You must wear sturdy closed-toe shoes. Leave the flip flops home for this adventure.
It was an incredible experience and very few like it in the world that’s open to the public. Its a good reason to get off the main highways and travel the back roads of America.