Located near Arco, Idaho, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is like no other! With its’ amazing geological and scientific features, the environment is literally out of this world! Its’ volcanic ground zero replicates the surface of the moon. Hence, why it’s called, “Craters of the Moon”.
As we were driving New Mexico to Arco, Idaho we noticed monstrous masses of solid black lava rock. It went on for miles. We had no idea where we were. It was almost like we had left earth and arrived in something we couldn’t even describe.
However, once we arrived at the campground in Arco, Idaho, we saw advertisements for Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. It was how we learned about this volcanic debris field. We had no idea this place even existed.
So, of course, we just had to go. After researching it, we wanted to trek across the cinders, climb the volcanic Inferno Cone and hike Satan’s Garden to be able to say, ‘we’ve been to the MOON!’.
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Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve – Idaho
The National Park Service’s Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve is located between Shoshone and Arco, Idaho.
About Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
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; a 618 square mile volcanic debris field. That’s half the size the state of Rhode Island!
From NASA Earth Observatory website, the photo below is an aerial view of Craters of the Moon.
“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.”
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 the 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 Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.
Life exists at this Volcanic Ground Zero
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 all of us 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.
Visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
The closer we got to the Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve park entrance, it was quite evident that this is an incredibly massive volcanic wonder.
Once we were entered the park, we went inside the visitor center to show our National Park Access Pass, receive our informational brochure and Park map. We also brought our National Park Passport to get our cancellation stamp for proof we’ve been there.
This lesser-known National Monument and Preserve was a wonderful way to spend the day. And, if the sky is blue like it was when we visited, all the more better to offer better contrast and colors.
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.
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 (showing my age here), this is what our high school track and field tracks were constructed with. And our coaches picked out of our knees, elbows and hands after falling on them. So that’s where cinder tracks came from; volcanic cinders.
We strolled around the half-mile walk around Devils Orchard; island-like lava fragments stand in a sea of cinders. It looked like Satan lived here; hence the name.
But then, there were little surprises peppered throughout; from grassy patches to beautiful wildflowers.
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), visitors can obtain a permit, carry a flashlight and explore the caves. Word to the wise though, leave your flip flops home for this adventure. You must wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes.
Wrapping up our Moon visit
Our visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve was an incredible experience like no other. In fact, we want to return and explore even more. Terrain like this is not common. And now we can say we hiked what is left of a volcano.
There are very few volcanic debris fields in the world that’s open to the public. So, this is a great reason to leave the main major highways and travel the back roads of America to visit these National Park gems like Craters of the Moon.