Though the landscape may have you thinking you are on another planet, Craters of the Moon National Monument is in southern Idaho, a few short hours west of the magnificent Grand Tetons. It was declared as a national monument in by President Calvin Coolidge after a National Geographic publication caused quite a stir about this mysterious landscape, and he wanted to assure the American people that the area would be protected. A landscape created by somewhat recent volcanic activity in the Snake River Plain, the area encompasses miles of hardened lava, ash, cinder cones, spatter cones and other volcanic features, leaving it feeling barren yet beautiful.
This was one of those places that we happened to just see on the Atlas and say, let’s check this out! Though it didn’t look quite as interesting as the US Sheep Experiment Station – also listed on the atlas and begging to be researched – we made some calls and confirmed that the campground was open and that though the lava tubes were still snowed in, it would still be worth a trip.
It was a little chilly when we arrived in late April and we weren’t surprised as we had driven through some light snow showers that morning. We had no problem getting a site in the campground, which was right near the entrance and first-come, and had a good number of RV accessible sites. It was only $8, too, since our national parks pass had covered admission and the water in the campground hadn’t yet been turned on.
Exploring the area on foot is always a good way to warm up, so we did just that. We walked from the campground to the trail head for the North Crater Trail, which seemed to be the most interesting choice of day hikes. It was 3.6 miles roundtrip, out and back, with 758 feet of elevation gain. I could give you more details about the trail as someone clearly geeked out on the topography measurements, but I will spare you. Though knowing that the really steep part was at a 43 degree angle is kind of interesting! We got the impression that the park had gotten a decent amount of funding in recent years as it was very well kept and was clearly not skimping on details.
The trail took us past and over hardened lava flows backdropped by scree slopes and beautiful snow capped mountains. A little snow remained on and around the trail, but not too much. The area reminded us of the volcanic landscape of Crater Lake National Park, but in a smaller, more intimate setting and with even fresher volcanic evidence. It certainly was not your average landscape.
At the end of the trail one way was probably the coolest volcanic feature of the park:spatter cones. It’s surreal to imagine that these mini volcanoes were active in the not too distant past, spattering red hot lava out of their center. There were even beautifully paved paths leading up to take a peek inside of them!
A short distance away was also Inferno Cone, a couple hundred foot tall cinder cone that actually has no hole at the top! The signage says that it must have erupted from somewhere underground. A short, steep climb led us up this cinder path to far-reaching views of the surrounding area. On a clear day, the tops of the Grand Tetons can even be seen off in the distance.
On the way back, we discovered what we think must have been a mini lava tube alongside the trail, which was also pretty awesome.
Very happy with our decision to make this stop, we headed back to warm up in the camper. Or, should I say, as best as we could in a camper!