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Chapter 4:
xplorations and Surveys in the Craters of the Moon Region, 1879-1937

Overview of the Explorations and Surveys of the Snake River Plain

American explorers discovered the Snake River Plain during the nineteenth century as the nation expanded beyond the Mississippi River. They gathered information about the region, publicized their findings, and aided the country's understanding of this far western land for settlement and exploitation. Their endeavors also revealed the important role played by the federal government in sponsoring western exploration. For it was under the auspices of army and civilian agencies that a host of naturalists, surveyors, cartographers, geologists, and adventurers examined the western territory. In the process, they provided a broad, descriptive, and compelling record of this new land.

The history of the Snake River Plain's exploration, as with all of western exploration, demonstrated ties to national goals and culture, and unfolded through three major periods. In the first half of the nineteenth century, it was part of an imperial rivalry and competition for the West. In the middle nineteenth century, it was part of national expansion and western settlement. And in the latter nineteenth century, it was part of the great surveys, an era of intensive scientific reconnaissances and inventories. All told exploration helped to map the frontier, plot transportation routes for roads and rails, and inventory and investigate the region's wealth of natural and human resources. Although the end of the nineteenth century brought a close to the "frontier" in the minds of many Americans, and thus a close to exploration, geologists, among other scientists working for federal agencies, continued the mission in the early 1900s. They surveyed and studied the plain's, as well as the West's, resources and planned the course for their development and management.

The first official exploration of southern Idaho was undertaken by Captain Benjamin L.E. Bonneville in the early 1830s. Ostensibly on a leave of absence from the military to enter the fur trade, Bonneville was carrying out explicit instructions from the War Department to explore the Far West, paying attention to its natural history, native tribes, soils, minerals, geology, geography, topography, and climate. Based on this information, some historians believe that Bonneville engaged in more than the fur business and was actually a "spy" for the cause of national expansion. In 1832 he set out from western Missouri for the Rocky Mountains, his course taking him to the Salmon River Mountains by way of South Pass, making him the first to lead wagons through this famous emigrant route. The following summer, Bonneville attended the annual fur traders' rendezvous held at the Green River in present-day Wyoming, and that winter turned west and crossed the Snake River Plain. Intent on reaching Fort Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia River, he followed the Astorian's route to Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia. Turned back there by the Hudson's Bay Company, he retraced his route to the Portneuf River on the southern rim of the plain, where he arrived in early June and continued on to the Bear River Valley. In the fall, he repeated his trip to Fort Walla Walla with the same results, returned to winter in the upper Bear River Valley, made a final hunt the following spring, and then left the Snake River country. In all likelihood, his persistence reflected his so-called "spy" mission, one in which he was to assess the British strength and operations in the Oregon country, contact native tribes, and evaluate the region's resources. [1]

Bonneville produced two maps of his journeys, and for their time, they ranked among the most important. In addition, his descriptions of the Snake River country, recorded in his journals and published by Washington Irving, offered some of the first portraits of the region. The plain, particularly the Craters country, was depicted as a "desolate and awful waste," with little redeeming qualities, save a wild and majestic nature. Rather than dismissing the region altogether, Irving wrote that he and Bonneville looked "forward with impatience for some able geologist to explore this sublime but almost unknown region." [2]

Irving's statement anticipated the contribution of naturalists and scientists to the body of growing knowledge about the Snake River Plain. As a member of Nathaniel J. Wyeth's fur trading expedition, John Kirk Townsend was the first zoologist to cross the lava country in 1834. An ornithologist, Townsend was accompanying British botanist Thomas Nutall across the continent. Townsend's observations offered an important contrast to those of his fellow travelers, for he expressed an interest in the origins and composition of the lava that at times posed a great impediment to his company's progress. While on the way to the Portneuf River in early July, Townsend noted, for example, that the country was mostly arid and poor. "On the wide plain," he observed "large sunken spots, some of them of great extent, surrounded by walls of lava, indicating the existence, at some very ancient date, of active craters." Attempting to date these eruptions at a time before Darwinian evolution theory, the naturalist believed they were "antediluvian," dating from before "the present order of creation." Townsend also reported that high walls of lava and basaltic dykes were exposed on the hillsides, and the "juxtaposition" of these "enormous masses" formed "many large and dark caves." [3 ]

Beginning in the 1840s, the federal government increased the exploration of the Snake River Plain when it launched its great reconnaissance of the Far West to expedite the national goal of western expansion. Exploration thus embodied the desires of the nation's leaders to acquire new territory, locate suitable railroad routes across the continent, inventory and assess the region's resources for development, and increase American knowledge of the West. [4]

The explorers and scientists who embarked on these investigations did so under the sponsorship of the navy and army. In the Pacific Northwest, the government engaged in exploration from two directions, one by sea from the West Coast and one by land from the east. Since it was landlocked, the Snake River Plain was assessed from the ground by the famed explorer John C. Fremont. A member of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, he surveyed and mapped the emigrant trail to Oregon, which took him across the plain in the early 1840s. He set forth from Independence, Missouri, in the spring of 1843 with a party of forty men. Known popularly as the "Great Pathfinder," Fremont reached the Snake River country in September 1843; he stopped at Fort Hall, and then marched down the Snake and across the plain to the Columbia River and Oregon. [5]

Although he was not the first explorer to traverse the barren wastes of the Great Basin, Fremont was its true discoverer. He named it and recognized that it included parts of what are today southern Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. And as a discoverer and more so as a publicist for expansion, Fremont produced a map and a report of his 1843- 1844 trek in order to promote western migration. Charles Preuss, Fremont's cartographer, drew what was considered the "first great map of the West," giving a detailed route of the Oregon Trail, exact distances, river crossings, landmarks, and native tribes. The map accompanied Fremont's report to Congress. Lauded as masterful, monumental, and comprehensive, the report was widely published and distributed, and touted as influencing and informing a broad audience, from westbound emigrants to European naturalists. [6]

As part of its program for westward expansion, following the acquisition of Oregon, Texas, and California, Congress authorized surveys for a Pacific railroad route by the Topographical Corps in 1853. This impressive reconnaissance, conducted by military explorers and civilian scientists, produced not only reports of the best routes but also some of the best scientific examinations of the West's flora, fauna, and geology of the time. The expeditions covered sections of Idaho under the northern survey led by Isaac I. Stevens, the new governor of Washington Territory. Stevens' survey went far north of the Snake River Plain charting routes across Idaho's panhandle. Although Stevens favored a northern route, members of his own survey party and many citizens of Washington Territory disagreed with his views. The route was impractical and expensive because it crossed high mountains; for this reason many residents of the Pacific Northwest favored a more southerly route following the general direction of the emigrant trail from Puget Sound to South Pass. To this end, the legislature of Washington Territory hired civilian engineer Frederick W. Lander to survey the route in 1854. Lander, who had been a member of Stevens' party, reported favorably on the route, and his report was included in the final publication of the Pacific Railroad Reports. [7]

During the 1860s and 1870s, the last efforts to explore the Snake River Plain were undertaken by Clarence King and Ferdinand V. Hayden, the former sponsored by the army, the latter by the Interior Department's United States Geological Survey of the Territories. King's Geological and Geographical Exploration of the 40th parallel (1867- 1872) brought him briefly to southern Idaho in 1868 when he journeyed north from Utah to see the Snake River and its awesome canyons for his first time. Having traveled over the emigrant trail and through the dreary scenery of sage and sand, King viewed the spectacular Shoshone Falls and was deeply moved. He described his trip as "a monotony of pale blue sky, olive and gray stretches of desert, frowning walls of jetty lava, deep beryl green of river-stretches, reflecting, here and there, the intense solemnity of the cliffs, and in the centre a dazzling sheet of foam." [8 ]Although King found no evidence of coal near the river, which had been the reason for his visit, he and his party camped on the cliff overlooking the falls to enjoy the sublime scene. So inspired by this sight, the geologist wrote an article about his experience for Bret Harte's Overland Monthly. [9]

Hayden's surveys, sent in advance of and as an aid to settlement of the West, skirted the eastern Snake River Plain over fur trading routes leading from the vicinity of Fort Hall to the Yellowstone country in 1871 and 1872. With exploration of Yellowstone National Park's grandeur as their primary goal, the surveys were important for the Snake River country because they assembled crews of able naturalists, scientists, topographers, artists, and photographers, all of whom recorded their observations of this unique territory and included it in their artistic and scientific legacy of the West. [10]

The surveys also signaled a change in exploration. Military-sponsored exploration closed with King's expedition, and civilian-agency sponsored exploration opened with Hayden's survey. Led by academic scientists, the surveys emphasized less the discovery and more the assessment of the nation's resources. All of this was symbolized best in 1879 with the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey, headed first by Clarence King and later by the renowned geologist-explorer John Wesley Powell.

In the wake of the great western surveys, much of the Snake River Plain still remained an enigma. But this began to change late in the nineteenth century. In 1879, Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie expressed an interest in the plain itself rather than what lay beyond or around it. Famed for his expertise in volcanic action, Geikie viewed the eastern edge of the plain while returning to Utah from an excursion to see the geysers of Yellowstone. He admitted that much of his journey had been over "bare, burning, treeless, and roadless desert." But from a geological perspective coming across the lava formations of the Snake River Plain was "one of the most interesting parts of the whole journey." [11]

Hugging the "margins of a vast plain of basalt," that stretched to the south and west "as far as the eye could reach," Geikie traveled for hours, thinking that the "plain had once been a great lake or sea of molten rock which surged along the base of the hills, entering every valley, and leaving there a solid floor of bare black stone." Overall, the lava flows appeared to be quite recent, as if they "had cooled only a short time ago," an appearance, he added, that was aided by the slow rate of erosion in the arid climate. Of particular interest to Geikie was the origin of the lava flows. It seemed that volcanoes were the source, but he could find no "visible cones or vents from which these floods of basalt could have proceeded." And thus Geikie concluded that massive fissure eruptions, rather than volcanoes, were the source for the volcanic plain of the Snake country and the Far West, This theory, he believed, also applied to the origin of the basaltic plateaus of Ireland and Scotland, his homeland. Geikie's encounter with the Snake River Plain and other vast lava fields of the West exerted such a powerful influence on him that it lifted the "mist from my geological vision," he wrote. [12]

Adding to the scattered scientific observations of the Snake River Plain, C. Hart Merriam, ornithologist and head of the Biological Survey, passed through the region in the fall of 1890. Merriam's interest was sparked by reports that much of this country had not been explored by naturalists. A member of Hayden's 1872 survey, he was conducting the first extensive biological survey of the mountain ranges north of the plain. He arrived in Blackfoot by train and from there covered country in the Salmon, Lost River, and Sawtooth mountains. Though he spent some time identifying its flora and fauna, Merriam had little to say about the Snake River Plain, except that it extended as far as he could see, level, covered with sage, and "dotted in a few places by lava cones and craters." The naturalist, however, made a special point of visiting Shoshone Falls, much heralded in popular accounts as the rival of Niagara, and found it "not half so grand or imposing" on the whole. [13]

The first and most comprehensive investigation of the Snake River Plain was conducted by Israel C. Russell in 1901. Russell worked for the Geological Survey and had participated in extensive explorations of the deserts and mountains of the West and Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His reconnaissance of the plain reflected the Survey's mission to study the water supply and irrigation possibilities for those vast sections of the West that required only water to transform them into productive agricultural lands. [14]

Both a skilled observer and facile writer, Russell was drawn to the remote and wild recesses of the country such as the Snake River Plain, the "wilder and rougher," in his words, "the better." He spent about two months studying the region between July and September, concentrating most of his efforts in the eastern section of the plain. Initially, Russell's work was to have been a water supply paper, but the plain's geology captivated him so much that it took over the report. At times, though, his report read like a promotional document because Russell was attempting to reduce "false impressions" of what the geologist called the "Snake River lava plains" or the "Snake River Desert." The Snake River Plain, he asserted, was not flat but had varied relief, and despite its desert appearance was vegetated and populated with wildlife. [15]

Writing to dispel common misperceptions about the Snake River Plain, he adopted ocean imagery to describe the landscape. The jagged, "naked lava" was surrounded by a ragged coastline, jutting headlands of mountains, and Big Southern and Twin buttes--ancient volcanoes and uplifts--that "rise as islands through the surrounding basalt." [16 ]Furthermore, despite the plain's relative flatness mountains boldly rose above it from several hundred to six thousand feet; the mountains themselves ranged from seven thousand to ten thousand feet above sea level. The undulating surface of the plain also ranged in elevation, averaging about three thousand feet in the west and from four to six thousand feet in the east. This latter section, lying between Big Southern Butte and the Lost River country, he called the plain's "broadest and most characteristic portion."

Sounding more like a booster than a geologist, Russell pointed out that there were positive aspects to the region's environment, in spite of the extreme climate of excessive heat and cold, wind and aridity, parched soils and dust-laden winds that "blow with such strength and constancy" so as to try a "person's nerves." Dry heat and cold were easier to withstand than in humid climates; the winds cleaned the country of snow; chinooks thawed deep freezes, and overall, "these climatic conditions," especially the dryness, resulted in a "healthfulness of the land," good for those with lung ailments. [17]

In a similar upbeat tone, Russell spoke of the plain's flora and fauna. Sagebrush grew "abundantly," he stated, and "we might say luxuriantly in the dry soil." Although the silvery-green leaves made the plains somewhat monotonous, sagebrush nevertheless demonstrated that the Snake River Plain appeared to be a desert only in the absence of water. Close examination revealed the flora to be "abundant and varied," for "many lovely plants" blossomed "in early spring, filling the air with fragrance, and in summer and fall the yellow of sunflowers and of the still more plentiful 'rabbit brush" highlighted the scenery with "broad dashes of brilliant color." Bunch grass also grew abundantly beneath the sage and formed a rolling prairie, supplying good pasture for livestock, especially in the vicinity of the three buttes. The presence of forests further diminished claims that the plain was a desert. A "thrifty growth of junipers" grew on the slopes of the three buttes, the forest extending east of them for 175 square miles. Along with some juniper, Big Southern Butte supported a "vigorous growth in the most favorable places of pine and firs." The most forested area lay on the western edge of the buttes, a few miles southwest of Arco for some fifty miles in an irregular pattern up to fifteen miles wide. It was "an open forest" of mostly pine and fir embracing the "Cinder Buttes" (Craters of the Moon). Finally, where trees grew, rich soil covered older lava flows and supported native grasses, creating a park-like setting, "a beautiful and attractive country." [18]

The presence of wildlife, again found primarily in the vicinity of the three buttes and the Lost River country, still further dispelled the desert image. One could find antelope, mountain sheep and goats, deer, and elk on the plain, as well as bear, coyotes, wolves, lynxes, and foxes, among other species. Where there were seasonal ponds and rivers, ducks and geese, among other waterfowl, congregated, and throughout the plain, grouse and other smaller birds were seen. [19]

Although Russell also portrayed the agricultural and settlement potential of the plain, he emphasized more its wilderness quality and aesthetic beauty. The plain's remoteness and aridity protected much of it from domestic sheep and overgrazing, and thus preserved its wildness. It was a wildness that should not be feared or loathed but appreciated. 'To lovers of nature and all who rejoice in scenes of natural wildness unmodified," he wrote, "or what is too frequently essentially the same thing, unmarred by the hand of man, the plains of southern Idaho present exceptional attractions." [20]

The geologist realized that first impressions of the lava landscape, primarily for those accustomed to a more humid and verdant East, would be negative. This was a common reaction during mid-day or mid-winter when the glare of the sun or the gray of the clouds rendered the plain flat and featureless. But for someone who spends weeks or months riding across the plain's "seemingly boundless surfaces," he continued, it is "found to have charms unthought by the casual passer-by." The time to view the plain was at dawn or dusk when the slanting sun beneath a clear sky cast all things in shadow bringing out "details everywhere on its surface." [21]

It was not simply that the landscape had definition but color. "When the sun is high in the cloudless heavens the plains are gray, russet brown, and faded yellow," he penned, "but with the rising of the sun and again near sunset they become not only brilliant and superb in color, but pass through innumerable variations in tone and tint." [22 ]Days began with cool blues on distant peaks rimmed with the rising sun, and as the sun rose, the colors deepened to violet and purple "of a strength and purity never seen where rain is frequent." All shades of purple bathed the arid lands. At sunset shadows and color reclaimed the landscape creating "a sea of purple on which float the still shimmering mountains." The clarity of the dry air made visual wonders of molten clouds and stars filling the night sky from "horizon to zenith." Cloud banks as well pleased the eye, building thunderheads that surpassed "the ability of even a poet to describe." [23]

After this sweeping and somewhat romantic view, Russell turned his attention to geology. Outlining the geological history of the plain, he determined that southern Idaho was made up of old rocks that formed a rugged, ancient land surface. After successive geological periods of thrusting, faulting, and erosion and flooding by lakes and river systems, the region began the "process of upbuilding" of which lava flows were a major contributor. He examined Big Southern, Middle and East buttes describing them as "mountain-like elevations" that break the monotony of the plain, visible from over a hundred miles away and familiar to many who traveled through the region. Russell identified Middle Butte as "an upraised block of stratified basalt," and Big Southern and East buttes as ancient rhyolitic volcanoes. He ascended Big Southern Butte, the highest of the three at an estimated elevation of about 2,400 feet. True mountaineering skills were necessary to climb the butte, Russell reported, but the territorial view from its summit was worth the climb, for much of the Snake River Plain's history "may easily be read in the splendid panorama." [24]

As the geologist surveyed the landscape, he theorized that the lava streams, fanning across the plain like withered leaves, flowed from the numerous volcanic cones and craters rather than one source. To his west he spied the "Cinder Buttes, among which a score or more volcanic cones are known to exist." With the exception of Cinder Butte, he counted about twenty craters on the broad plain, he said, and still more lay beyond his field of vision. Russell's was the first known observation of what is today Craters of the Moon by a geologist or other skilled observer. More importantly, the chain of cones and craters he saw influenced his belief that much of the lava covering the Snake River Plain poured "from small and inconspicuous craters, many of which have escaped burial by later eruptions and still exist as elevations." [25]

Based on his observations, Russell disagreed with the fissure eruption hypothesis favored by geologists like Sir Archibald Geikie, The hypothesis, while well founded, did not match his own experience, which led him "to conclude that many local eruptions from distant vents," both in the mountains and the plain, were the sources for the lava flows. While only speculating about the source of the plain's lava, Russell stated that the "Cinder Buttes" with their fresh appearance furnished "the most instructive illustrations of the nature of the eruptions which deluged a large part of southern Idaho." And for this reason, he devoted the majority of his field work and report to this area. [26 ]Russell believed that the Cinder Buttes offered a microcosm of the larger Snake River Plain, and it inspired him to return the following summer (1902) to continue his work. His visit, however, turned out to be only a rapid reconnaissance and a supplement to his previous investigation but foreshadowed future studies of the region. [27]

At the time Russell conducted his survey of the Snake River Plain, large-scale irrigation projects were getting underway in the Snake River basin, and the beginnings of farms and towns were emerging on reclaimed desert. By the 1920s about a million acres had been irrigated in southern Idaho when the USGS returned to begin a systematic study of the area's ground-water resources to aid in surface-water irrigation, in a sense carrying out the task Russell had undertaken twenty years earlier.

The Survey's Ground Water Division was in charge of the investigation and participated with the Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology. Oscar E. Meinzer, head of the Ground Water Division, arranged the field work and conducted a reconnaissance of the Snake River Plain east of Twin Falls. Employed by the Survey, the geologist Harold T. Steams, who would become an authority on the Snake River Plain, helped study the surface and subsurface water resources of the Mud Lake basin beginning in April 1921. During the late 1920s, the Survey progressed into more quantitative research. Steams, for example, collaborated with fellow Survey geologist Lynn Crandall, the Idaho Reclamation Bureau, and the Idaho Bureau Mines and Geology on a ten-year study of the plain's ground water. [28]

On the whole, geologists during the 1920s and 1930s studied the hydrology of the plain, measured stream flows, surveyed natural reservoirs, aided federal water projects, and inventoried surface water, in addition to examining the plain's ground water supply. All of this served the practical purpose of opening up new districts to settlement, aiding landowners who irrigated their crops. Above all it helped make the most of the plain's precious commodity of water. These various of activities were reflected in the career of Harold Steams who, in addition to the above projects, worked as a mineral examiner for the General Land Office, investigated the Haggerman fossil beds, and conducted the first scientific study of what is today Craters of the Moon National Monument--expanding the territory Russell had surveyed at the turn of the century. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Stearns continued his work on the plain, mapping irrigation and water power projects below Pocatello. [29]

Explorations and Surveys in the Craters of the Moon Region, 1879-1937

Until the turn of the century, Craters of the Moon was a blank space on the map, unsurveyed and uncharted, labeled only as rolling lava plains. Explorers, like fur trappers, steered away from the lava desert. Accounts from Benjamin Bonneville and John Townsend in the 1830s suggested that a mysterious landscape of volcanic formations awaited intrepid as well as trained explorers capable of understanding what they saw. Investigations of the lava formations of the Great Rift dated to the final three decades of the nineteenth century when ranchers entered in search of water and grass for their herds. But the most significant phase occurred in the first three decades of the twentieth century when early settlers, geologists, surveyors, and other extraordinary figures penetrated the region. Their investigations were the first for the future monument, charting, describing, and surveying its geology, topography, and features, all of which revealed to the public at large the area's significance. Their work would be advanced by a new generation of geologists who descended upon the monument after World War II.

The first Anglo Americans to venture into the lava interior were early settlers of the surrounding region. The once spurned lava country presented a foreign landscape to the growing communities on the eastern fringe of the Snake River Plain. But it also intrigued them. Legends circulated that native tribes secreted to a hidden valley in the lava country during times of war; it was assumed that they were ensconced there with an abundant supply of food and water. George Goodhart reported to have been blindfolded and led to this "Lost Valley" by Indians in the 1860s, allowed only to see that it was rimmed with red cliffs. He recalled that it took two days to reach the valley and that it lay southwest of the Big Lost River and east of the Big Wood River. [30]

Stories of the Lost Valley fired the interest of stockmen and cattle companies eager to exploit the imagined resources. In the 1870s and 1880s, ranchers searched for it in vain, spurred on by the promise of a cattle company's $5,000 reward. Eager to claim the prize, Lost River ranchers John W. Powell and Arthur Ferris explored the lava beds within today's monument as far as its southern border. Powell, an Arco resident, first visited the Craters country in 1879. He returned with Ferris in the early 1880s, and together they found a stream flowing on the lava surface, its location due west of Blackfoot, over thirty miles southwest of Arco and twenty miles east of Carey. But the ephemeral stream disappeared along with their reward. To mark their passage, though, Powell erected a rock cairn at Vermillion Chasm Waterhole, and with Ferris inscribed their names and the date 1885 on the shoulder bone of a cow in Buffalo Cave. [31]

Powell and Ferris were possibly the first whites to visit this uncharted land. Yet others were also drawn to the region by visions of this lush and abundant valley in the lavas. George Kimpton, a Pocatello pioneer, reported that he visited the Craters country in 1884, making him "one of the first white persons to set foot on this weird formation." There were many "wild berries growing there," he said, "fine food for silver tip bears which were plentiful," in a district that also "abounded with mountain lions, wolves, foxes, there being thousands of hiding places in the lava beds." Kimpton also claimed to have found a "great trail," constructed by early tribes near the "Valley of the Moon." The trail's presence mystified Kimpton, for it was wide enough for a horse, more than eight feet deep and 1,200 feet long. [32]

Contact with the region, the Lost Valley legend notwithstanding, was infrequent in the late nineteenth century. During the era of great trail drives, ranchers herded their livestock through the Pioneer Mountain foothills bordering the northern edge of the lava flows of today's monument. Some may have watered their herds at the waterholes or grazed them on the islands of grass scattered throughout the lava flows. But stockmen like Ferris and Powell were not likely to advertise their discoveries or to share their "free" resources with others. Thus, Craters of the Moon owed its true discovery to an exploration sponsored by the federal government.

As part of his reconnaissance of the Snake River Plain for the USGS in the summer of 1901, Israel Russell explored the northern district of today's national monument. He first saw the chain of volcanic cones and craters from the summit of Big Southern Butte, counting more than twenty of each kind and speculating that more lay out of sight. He also believed that the formations held the answers to the origins of the lava covering much of the Snake River Plain, the lava flowing from numerous "small and inconspicuous craters" rather than a single volcano or fissures. Any study of the volcanic activity of the plain, the geologist stated, began with a visit to these extinct volcanoes; they appeared remarkably fresh, and furnished the "most instructive illustrations of the nature of the eruptions which deluged such a large part of the southern Idaho with lava." [33]

Russell ventured into an unsurveyed region, identified on maps as lava desert. A General Land Office map of the state named only one geographic landmark, a prominent cone labeled "Old crater." Local residents referred to it as Cinder Butte, and because it belonged with "the entire group of volcanoes," Russell named the area "Cinder Buttes." He was most likely seeing Big Cinder Butte, which he said rose six hundred feet above the plain and lay about five miles west of the Pioneer Mountains. The butte formed a centerpiece for volcanic cones that studded the plain in a belt of three to four miles wide and ten to fifteen miles long, that ran southeast from the base of the mountains and advanced out on the broad plain. He described the "buttes" as closely grouped and even crowded at the belt's western end and more widely spaced and even isolated at the eastern end, with some cones lying about five miles to the south of Big Cinder Butte. [34]

Russell never stated how long he investigated the area or recorded where he visited. He stayed possibly up to two weeks and reconnoitered the area from Big Cinder Butte north. Much of his report was devoted to describing the volcanic features, analyzing the composition of the lava, and estimating its age and origins. He noted, for example, that most of the formations were composed of volcanic dust, lapilli, tuff, which were covered and filled with an array of fragments and rough pieces of scoriae, "volcanic bombs, and thin, irregular, cake-like forms of lava," all produced by violent explosions. Approximately twenty craters had survived in a "fair state of preservation," while numerous others were in a state of decay or erosion, fragmented or buried beneath later lava flows. On the older lava flows and cones grass and a forest of pine and fir grew, while their younger counterparts were "entirely bare." Furthermore, these younger formations--smooth and rough lava streams, cones, and craters--presented "many pleasing variations in color, ranging from deep red through brown and purple to lusterless black." [35]

Having inventoried and described the myriad volcanic fragments, craters, and cones, Russell discovered what he called the "parasitic cones" or spatter cones. He described the spatter cones as "a row of seven steep-sided and remarkably regular cones" that were formed by blobs of falling. pasty lava thrown up from vents in the earth's crust. As the blobs fell, they adhered to each other and formed miniature volcanoes. The conical-shaped formations were nearly vertical, their slopes about fifty to sixty degrees at their summits and thirty-four degrees at their bases, and with only one exception ranged from forty to sixty feet high. Most of the cones' openings had been blocked, except for two in the northwestern section. The smaller of these had an ice block ten feet thick at the bottom of its shaft in early September, and the larger of these had both ice and water in its bottom. Here, and in other crevices, the geologist used a wooden ladder, fashioned from local materials, to descend into and more closely inspect these lava chimneys. These were, Russell concluded, about the "simplest examples of 'ice wells' that can be imagined." [36]

To Russell the spatter cones were interesting anomalies, since he believed that the lava flows originated in the much larger cinder cones. Thus he spent most of his reconnaissance tracing the lava streams to their sources. In doing so, he determined that six principal and recent lava flows began in the "Cinder Buttes" and spread across the plain for almost three-hundred square miles. In addition to looking for the origins of the lava streams, Russell identified the different surfaces of lava, as pahoehoe, corrugated, and aa, terms previously used to describe the smooth and rough flows in Hawaii. He also speculated that the flows were responsible for creating the series of caves, tunnels, and surface depressions he saw throughout the area.

One of the more important questions he attempted to answer was the age of the flows themselves. At least three of the six main lava streams, which he investigated, he believed were 100 to 150 years old. He determined this based on their black color, which gave them the appearance that they had just surfaced from the earth, and the amount of vegetation growing on them and the surrounding craters. He also decided that one could determine a lava flow's age based on the discoloration of its surface. While doing this, he noted that a weathered flow had lost some of its "bloom of youth," yet it was also covered with a sheen of "desert varnish," a thin film of cobalt blue, interspersed with light blue or gray like the scales of a reptile. For this reason, he named it the "Blue Dragon lava flow." [37]

More than any other section of the plain, the Craters country impressed Russell the most. Its recent origins, he hoped, would unravel the mystery of older eruptions forming the greater part of the Snake River Plain. One trip, then, did not satisfy his interest, and he returned the following summer to continue and supplement his 1901 survey. Unfortunately, he was only able to conduct a hasty reconnaissance, one which lasted long enough for him to "verify and extend" his previous observations. [38]

The first geologist to survey and call out the importance of what is now Craters of the Moon, Russell hoped that the unique region would receive a more detailed study in the near future. Until the Geological Survey fulfilled that wish twenty years later, the Cinder Buttes country became increasingly the subject of local interest. The Lost Valley legend continued to pique the imaginations of ranchers and opportunists in the early 1900s, but their attempts to establish a giant ranch in the mythical valley faded like a mirage. [39] The interest expressed by nearby communities, especially townspeople from the Arco village and the valleys of the Big and Little Lost rivers, continued to be motivated by mysteries surrounding the unknown. But they also were curious about and intrigued by the strange lava formations and the fantastic shapes of cones, craters, and lava flows.

Exploratory outings of the Craters region began after 1910 when settlement expanded in the Lost River country as a result of an irrigation project under the Carey Act. The first reported trip to the "Devil's Playground" took place in June 1912 when a group of Arco men inspected several of the "scenic wonders of that part of the country." The adventurists marveled at the weird phenomena--deep craters, vents filled with snow and ice, and ash, cinders, and bombs covering the ground. They were led by Era Martin, a rancher living in the vicinity of the lava flows, who reportedly knew "every foot of the crater region." Because of Martin's explorations, the region was referred to as both the Cinder Buttes and the Martin Lavabeds. Members of the same group returned once more that month, not satisfied they had seen enough. On their second trip they headed toward Big Cinder Butte to get a better look at the lava flows; they noted the rough (aa) lava, and the smoother (pahoehoe) streams. These latter flows in particular fascinated them, for they took all manners of "queer shapes," serpentine figures, furrowed fields, or a lava sea. Rather than a place to be spurned, the explorers believed the region offered "food for contemplation," and it was only a thoughtless person whose encounter with "the crags of Mother Earth's struggles" would not inspire meditations on the past, present, and future of the world. [40]

These initial ventures seem to have inspired, or been a part of, other trips to explore the interior of the lava deserts. Explorer-sightseers traveled to the lava flows by horse, wagon, and auto, and then proceeded by foot over the rugged terrain. Some still searched for the Lost Valley, as groups from Pocatello, Blackfoot, and Arco planned and launched treks into the remote region in 1913 with no positive results. Pleasure outings with an exploratory theme also became more commonplace. That same year, for example, at least one party of Arco residents sought out the Craters for a Sunday outing, "viewing the scenes where the Devil and Mother Earth cut up 'high jinks' when she was young and gay and giddy." Era Martin served as guide, and the picnickers spent most of the day among the cinder fields, craters, lava flows and streams, and caves, some even collecting a cartload of specimens in the name of scientific investigation. In addition to taking specimens, visitors to the strange landscape documented their activities and events and scenery with photographs and stories in local papers. [41]

Moreover, the growing popularity of the region owed much to individuals such as Martin who knew the volcanic country well and had a "contagious" interest in it. Martin's experience with the area, for example, stemmed from his search in the lava desert for Indian curious he could sell to eastern markets. In the process of scouring the country for artifacts, he discovered and marked many of its caves and waterholes; one of his better known discoveries was Moss Cave, later named and described by Robert Limbert, Martin would eventually construct a wagon road to Little Prairie Waterhole by 1920 to water his livestock, but his efforts also provided greater access to the lava formations. [42 ]Others joined Martin in exploration, one of whom was Samuel A. Paisley. A well-known local explorer, Paisley discovered and became fascinated with the lava formations of the Craters country after he moved to the Arco area in 1910. For more than a decade, he led excursions to the area, helped promote it, and along with nearby ranchers and civic groups, built trails to popular sites and erected signs. He would continue these activities after he became the first custodian of the national monument. [43]

Most of these local explorers left few written accounts, except for one. Although not a trained geologist, Robert W. Limbert was a naturalist and promoter, outdoor photographer and taxidermist, entertainer and explorer all wrapped up in one individual. Drawn to the undiscovered and unknown reaches of Idaho, Limbert explored the Craters region in the early 1920s; it was one of the many remote yet wondrous landscapes he found in the state. He moved to Boise in 1911, and the fantastic stories about the Lost Valley, strange lava beds, and volcanic formations that looked like the "valley of the moon" eventually enticed him to explore the region, especially once he heard that an unusual species of dwarf grizzly bear lived there. The blank space on the map labeled rolling lava terrain" also attracted him, granting him the chance to bring this remarkable region to the attention of world. [44]

Between about 1918 and 1920, Limbert toured the northern section of the lava district originally covered by I.C. Russell two times. He discovered that this "shunned" area did not meet his expectations of a unattractive, barren, waterless, and lifeless landscape. In all cases, almost the opposite was true, and hoping to find more "peculiar features," he embarked on a third trip covering the entire length of the rift. Accompanied by Walter L. Cole of Boise and an Airedale terrier, Limbert set out from Minidoka in May 1920 and for seventeen days trekked eighty miles north to the town of Martin through hot, arid, treacherous, and unsurveyed volcanic territory. Limbert believed that he and Cole were the first white men to undertake such an expedition, which represented the first and most extensive reconnaissance of the volcanic country. [45 ] More publicist than trained explorer, Limbert produced no exact maps of his travels and was prone to hyperbole, yet at the same time he produced vivid descriptions and remarkable photographs of what is now Craters of the Moon. Both forms of documentation were the earliest of their kind and gave a sense not only of what the strange region looked like, but also what travel through it was like.

During the rugged north-south trek, Limbert and Cole spent three days walking over monotonous and jagged-edged aa lava, which badly cut their dog's feet and slowed their progress. In places, Limbert said, they picked their way across the terrain by following old Indian trails. In lava depressions, they found water pooled from melted snow and ice. Trails, rock cairns built by Indians, and even doves led them to these waterholes, which was serendipitous because most of the time the explorers were lost; the magnetic properties of the volcanic formations often rendered a compass useless. In the best estimation, Limbert entered the present monument near Two Point Butte, from there traveled to Vermillion Chasm and then to Sheep Trail Butte, which he named for the prominent old sheep trails that terraced the cinder cone's sides. Turning northwest, he headed for Echo Crater, so named for its acoustical qualities by Limbert and his companions. At the crater Limbert and Cole established a base camp. Cole, who had injured his foot, rested at the camp while Limbert continued north past Big Cinder Butte and North Crater Flow for about twelve miles to meet and return with Era Martin and Wes Watson. [46]

For the remainder of the trip, these four fanned out across the lava countryside, naming many of the geological features they encountered. Finding a waterhole covered with a layer of drowned hornets, they named it Yellow Jacket Water Hole; cinder beds that were patched with dwarf buckwheat marked what were believed to be bear tracks several hundred years old and earned the name Bear Track Flat; a field of vertical tree molds which resembled the rifling of gun barrels was named Trench Mortar Flat, and a natural bridge upon which an expedition member bumped his head was dubbed the Bridge of Tears. The names of other features such as Amphitheater Cave, Bottomless Pit, and the Ruined Pueblo Flow reflected similar references and experiences by Limbert and company. [47 ] Most of these names still identify the monument's features.

Throughout his account, Limbert remarked about the life he saw all around him in the so-called "barren" landscape. Trails and rock markers, mounds, and circles were evidence to him of Indian use of the area. The tracks of bears, mountain sheep, bobcats, and coyote also appeared here and there in the cinders, and birds congregated near waterholes, craters, and caves. On the older lava flows and cinder cones, buckbrush, sage, and other plants and flowers thrived, as did limber pine and juniper.

When completed, the trip proved to be a major feat but not without some danger. Both Cole and the expedition's dog injured their feet walking the sharp and contorted lava beds, and even Limbert was temporarily trapped in a deep hole. But that seemed to be the extent of the expedition's troubles. Certainly the potential for disasters existed. Expedition members carried packs weighing more than fifty-five pounds; they crossed uneven, hard and unstable terrain, climbed steep and sometimes fragile cones and craters, and descended into deep caverns and crevices. Becoming lost always seemed to weigh on the explorers' minds; at least once, one of Limbert's party marked the entrance to several caves with a row of rocks for several hundred yards, it seems, not only to identify the sites but also to find the way out safely. Except for these "markers," Limbert's party left no permanent marks on the landscape.

Limbert's most permanent record of this and other journeys came in the form of his writings and photographs. As he traversed the contorted landscape, he became enamored of its scenic grandeur. Where others had seen only a barren waste, he found solace and beauty. Here, he wrote, "the human voice seems a sacrilege in the amphitheater [sic] of nature such as these huge craters seem to be." He searched for words to describe the scenery of "immense rolls and folds of fantastically formed lava...colored blue, black, and brown...the scores of crater rims and walls that start at your very feet and dot the landscape to the horizon line." Exploring this strange country had taken him to some of "the grandest sights imaginable," from the heights of the great craters to their "deep and somber depths." It was a sublime experience to descend from the scenic feast of surrounding space and sky to crater bottom, and become enveloped in a "red walled funnel," where "one feels little and insignificant, a fly on the wall of the world." [48]

Capturing the essence of the area, he wrote, as many did, of color and light. As he watched the sun of light and moon dance across the cobalt blue lava flows of the Blue Dragon Flow, it changed from a "twisted, wavy sea" to a "glazed surface" with a "silvery sheen." Not simply day and night, but the "changing conditions of light and air" make this a place of color and silence," which was unequaled, with few exceptions, in "variety of formation, color, and scenic effects" in the world. [49]

Limbert published his story in the April 10, 1921, edition of the Idaho Sunday Statesman, accompanied by some of the more than two hundred photos he snapped of the region with his Graflex camera. He was convinced that the Craters country was national park or monument caliber and would, with the proper developments, attract thousands of visitors traveling west from Yellowstone. Conducting free lectures around the state, he drummed up support for his idea and continued to explore the volcanic district guiding several more trips with scientists and explorers. As a result his explorations served the dual purpose of gathering knowledge and promoting the region as a national park.

In June 1921, the explorer-promoter led his most famous investigation of the Craters area. The party consisted of ten men, who were "equipped to make an exhaustive study of the lava formations, birds and animal life, and explore the many craters." Among the members were two federal biologists, Luther Goldman of the Biological Survey and W.E. Crouch of the Smithsonian Institution; local residents Samuel Paisley and Era Martin; civic leaders Clarence A. Bottolfsen and Jo G. Martin; and Harry Nims, a reporter for the Jermone North Side News, and Professor Orma J. Smith of the College of Idaho. The trip lasted two weeks. The group drove about twenty-two miles west of Arco skirting the foothills along the Arco-Carey Highway. When they reached a sign marked "Gateway to the Valley of the Moon," they turned south and drove over cinder flats and wound around the base of cinder cones over smooth lava flows. Unable to drive any farther, they stopped at a campground known as the Picnic grounds, most likely near Registration Waterhole, and from there packed in by horse and wagon to Echo Crater, by way of Big Cinder Butte and Trench Mortar Flat. As with his previous expedition, Limbert led members on side trips, covering most of the area within today's monument. While old sites were visited, the expedition also discovered and marked some new features, recording previously uncharted craters, pits, ice caves, and natural bridges. All of this, of course, did not occur without some drama: Limbert reported that he survived a close encounter with a grizzly bear. Once again, Limbert and expedition members recorded their adventures, writing accounts for the local press, shooting some fourteen hundred feet of home movies, and snapping nearly three hundred photographs. [50]

Limbert's maps, however, were only sketches of his expedition routes and the region's volcanic features, giving a sense of the area but nothing retraceable or to scale. But he excelled at reproducing his findings in dramatic photo essays that appeared in a number of local and state newspapers and national magazines. With these Limbert exposed a national audience to Craters of the Moon. His most famous piece appeared in the March 1924 edition of the National Geographic. Originally submitted in 1921, the essay seemed too fantastic and was delayed going to press until Limbert's findings could be verified. From an exploration standpoint, the essay represented a composite of several of Limbert's trips, making it difficult to unravel any order of events. Yet it was also timely, for it helped lead to the establishment of the national monument a few months later. (Limbert also aided the cause by presenting a photo album of the monument to President Calvin Coolidge.) [51]

The establishment of the monument raised the issue of what it should be named. Explorers, such as Limbert and his contemporaries, referred to the Craters country by various names--Cinder Buttes, the "craters," Martin Lavabeds--but most often they called it the Valley of the Moon. Craters of the Moon was chosen in a survey conducted by the Arco Chamber of Commerce in 1922 in order to avoid confusion with an area by that same name in California, and to adopt "something more appropriate and original." The editors of National Geographic followed suit by changing the title of Limbert's 1924 essay to read "Craters of the Moon" rather than "Valley of the Moon." The name stuck. The Park Service decided on the name officially when the monument was established. Although experts from the Smithsonian objected to the new name, Harold Stearns assured the Park Service that the name was appropriate for the volcanic country because its predominant features were craters and resembled those on the moon viewed through a telescope. [52]

From an exploration standpoint, the name still created a sense of mystery that drew people to explore the monument. Stories, for example, continued to surface about the supposed Lost Valley that lay just beyond the boundaries of the recently created monument. There, in the mysterious recess of the volcanic plain, Indian trails and artifacts, cool pools of water in deep crevices, grizzly bears and other wildlife, and an open park thick with tall rye grass and a small lake at its center awaited the intrepid explorer. [53]

And so it was the Lost Valley that drew Robert Limbert back to the region. He led the last of his popular explorations in the early summer of 1926, guiding a fifteen-member party of Washington State mountaineers in search of the valley. The group, composed of men and women from the Seattle Mountaineers and the Mount Stuart Alpine Club, was handpicked from at least one hundred applicants and included a doctor, geologists, writers, as well as alpinists. As if heading into the last frontier, the adventurists outfitted themselves with scientific equipment to explore caves and other features, carried still and motion picture cameras to capture the images of this wild land, and carted along a radio and carrier pigeons to stay in contact with the "outside world." [54 ]The two-week expedition also planned to find and map uncharted areas of the new monument and a possible road down the Great Rift.

Driving and then packing into the southern reaches of the monument, the group then set out on foot over rough lava and eventually discovered what they believed to be the Lost Valley putting the legend, it seemed, to rest. Limbert's descriptions of its location, however, were nearly as vague as the legend. He stated that it lay southeast of Big Cinder Butte and southwest of Big Southern Butte, and just a "few miles southwest of a low mountain in the desert." It was a mile and a half wide, part of a fissure that ran north to south through the country for a great distance, most likely a section of the Great Rift. The landform exhibited colorful cliff walls, an obsidian quarry and Indian weapons, caves Indians had used for shelter, and a fine supply of fresh water. In addition to the Lost Valley, the expedition discovered, according to its leader, numerous other volcanic phenomena, some of which were new bomb fields, waterholes, fissures, ice caves and ice stalagmites, tree molds, a natural bridge, about 250 spatter cones, and another Blue Dragon flow. What they discovered in the southern end equaled, and perhaps surpassed, the scenic beauties in the northern end, Limbert and party members said. Ultimately Limbert hoped that these new discoveries, contained in some two- hundred to three-hundred square miles of lava district, would be added to the existing national monument. [55]

Where Limbert's explorations publicized the spectacular lava district to a wide audience, the explorations of Harold T. Stearns validated the area's geological significance. Stearns, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey, conducted several geological surveys of the Craters region during the same period as Limbert's adventures. But it was by accident more than plan that the Survey returned to the area twenty years after Russell's study. In a sense, it was a fortunate accident for Stearns who became an authority on the region.

In May 1921 Oscar E. Meinzer, head of the Survey's Ground Water Division, visited Russell's Cinder Buttes during his reconnaissance of the Snake River Plain and "discovered" the Great Rift. Excited about what he found but unable to complete his own investigation, Meinzer advised Stearns to visit these "fresh volcanics" soon. Then working as a mineral examiner for the General Land Office in Idaho, Stearns followed Meinzer's advice and made a quick inspection that summer and just as quickly grasped the area's geological uniqueness. "Up to the time of the discovery of the Great Rift, he later wrote, "volcanic phenomena that accompany a fissure eruption were not known to exist in this country." Prepared for a more detailed study of the formations, Stearns returned in August 1923. With the geologist was Fred E. Wright, of the Carnegie Institution, who "had seen similar fissures in Iceland" and "recognized [the Great Rift] immediately as a true fissure eruption." [56]

In January 1924, the National Park Service, responding to proposals for creating a national monument in this lava district, heard of Steams's work and requested that he write a report "describing the area, delineating the boundaries, and stating the reasons for its preservation as a national monument." [57] Based on his limited experience with the Craters country, Stearns recommended setting aside an area of thirty-nine square miles for he believed that it would

preserve for the people of the United States the most recent example of a fissure eruption in this country. It does not duplicate the features of any of the national monuments or parks containing volcanic phenomena. In the existing national monuments there occur only those features that accompany a single volcano.

In addition, a monument would ensure government protection of the area from vandalism, commercial exploitation, and ensure public access and attention to a volcanic area of "curious and educational" interest. [58]

In support of Stearns's recommendation, Meinzer suggested what made the "Craters of the Moon" so special.

I was greatly impressed with the weirdness of the landscape, the freshness of the lava, the abundance, variety, and spectacular character of the volcanic features, and the great rift along which the volcanic features are largely arranged. I think there is nothing like it in the United States outside of the Island of Hawaii. [59]

Seconding Meinzer, Wright emphasized the educational importance of the proposed monument for studying in a "nutshell" the "problems of volcanism," He also stated that the area would appeal to the untrained visitor.

[To those] seeking the curious and unusual in nature there is much to attract. The impression made by desolate, forbidding lava fields studded with volcanic cones, great earth cracks, twisted and contorted shapes of lava, volcanic bombs, lava cones and other evidences of earth shaping forces at work is profound and not easily forgotten. I know of no such place in this country where so much can be seen so easily and in so short a time. [60]

Stearns and his fellow geologists thus echoed Russell's earlier observations. They favored the proposed monument because in a relatively small area it contained a collection of so many features associated with a fissure eruption; the features were located in close proximity to each other and to the Idaho Central Highway, providing visitors with easy access. The area might also provide a clue to the more complex story of the Columbia Plateau and the Snake River Plain. The geologists were equally interested in the recency of the lava, for one sensed that an eruption had just been missed. Stearns estimated that the most recent flows were possibly several hundred years old, noting some evidence that neighboring Shoshone or Bannock Indians may have witnessed fissure vents steaming in the aftermath of the last eruption early in the eighteenth century. Geologists were not immune to the landscape's beauty either. "Black and barren as it is," Stearns wrote, "the lava surface yet has a weird and scenic charm." [61]

Stearns' report, combined with the work of Robert Limbert and monument supporters, proved instrumental in the Park Service's proposal to establish Craters of the Moon National Monument, which President Calvin Coolidge signed into existence on May 2, 1924. [62] The thirtieth national monument, Craters of the Moon, however, still lacked an adequate geological survey. Up to this point, Stearns's work had been of a preliminary nature. He confined his 1923 survey, it seems, to the northern section of the monument and centered his attention on the Rift itself. Moreover, the monument was still the great unknown, a blank space on the map, since the General Land Office had never surveyed the region. Stearns had never actually traversed the monument's boundary in the field, yet he believed that he had included all the features "worthy of preservation" in a small, manageable area and had excluded all commercially valuable lands. [63]

The Park Service and General Land Office had begun plans for conducting a boundary survey of the proposed monument in 1923, but the project was delayed until 1925. That year, Max J. Gleissner of the U.S. Geological Survey worked in cooperation with the state of Idaho to produce a topographic map of the new monument. The survey was conducted between August and November and covered seventy-seven square miles. The crew used two triangulation points in the area, one of which was Hades Triangulation Station, a conical cairn about seven feet high, on Fissure Butte. As part of the survey process, Gleissner's team affixed bench marks to the lava formations to determine the direction and amount the terrain sloped to the south and southeast; a temporary benchmark, for example, was placed near Last Chance Cave. [64]

Gleissner created the first topographic map of the monument--complete with names and locations of geological features, probable Indian sites, trails, and wagon and automobile roads--that went on to form the base map for future generations. [65 ]As suggested by the amount of ground covered by the surveyor, Gleissner also discovered a variety of new resources, he believed, that warranted expanding the monument and undertaking a more thorough geological survey.

Primarily for these reasons Stearns returned to Craters of the Moon in 1926 to complete his earlier geological reconnaissance. He did so with the "express purpose of discovering new features," He also wanted to determine that all known features were within the monument, and in the process eliminate substandard land from the monument and redraw the boundaries to reflect these changes. At the same time, he was aware that the young monument needed better camping sites and a reliable source of water for its growing number of visitors. He factored these needs into his survey, too. [66]

Stearns' exploration lasted approximately one month, beginning in late September. For much of his survey he teamed with Samuel Paisley, custodian and local expert on the monument. The geologist spent the first part of his stay studying and mapping the geology of the northern section, starting in the North Crater vicinity and moving south to Great Owl Cavern along the base of the Spatter Cones. Having descended twenty-five feet into the cave using a rope ladder, he explored all of the cave's chambers, and reported seeing interesting formations such as stalactites and stalagmites. [67]

Stearns continued to inspect the monument's network of caves, visiting Surprise, Dewdrop, Needles, Horseshoe, Tom Thumb, and Last Chance caves, all of which Paisley had discovered himself or in the company of others in the early 1920s. Together Stearns and Paisley found and named a huge tunnel Lava River Cave. Stearns was particularly impressed with Indian Tunnel, one of the large caves. He found chipped chert and scrapers scattered in the teepee circles (a common name for the rock rings) at its entrance. Other noteworthy aspects of the cave were its natural light and its two natural bridges. [68]

Stearns then turned his attention to the foothills north of the lava flows. He and Paisley hiked up Little Cottonwood Creek to its source, a series of springs at the head of the drainage. There were two mines on the creek and an abandoned sheep ranch at the canyon's mouth, but Stearns thought it would be entirely feasible to acquire some of the area to supply the monument with water and provide camp sites in the pleasant meadow flanked by hillsides of aspen and Douglas fir. While here he ascended Sunset Cone, discovering two "perfect little craters in the top big crater," and another crater on the east side. The cone afforded him a good view of the North Crater aa flow that poured across the highway as well. [69]

Viewing the expanse of lava country inspired Stearns to name some of its features left unnamed by Robert Limbert, One of these was Silent Cone, an ancient cone which belonged in the same epoch as Grassy and Sunset cones. It earned its name, Stearns wrote, "because it has [stood] here silently and witnessed so many eruptions." At times he was moved to describe the country even more eloquently. Atop Round Knoll on the northeastern edge of the monument, he wrote of the "marvelous view" to be had from here.

At the foot of the knoll is the moat which is filled by a river of pahoehoe that flowed in the great trench left between the knoll and the aa lava. Stretching westward for several miles is a great expanse of pinnacles and scattered pines. Many of the pinnacles resemble human figures. Westward rises the cinder cones of the national monument and behind them the Velvet Hills known as the White Knob Mountains [Pioneer Mountains]. In the canyons [and] on their slopes are nested groves of quaking aspen first turned into rare yellows and goldens. A few of the peaks [are] capped with snow. To the south stretches glistening pahoehoe to the foot of Crescent [Butte] and some of the remnant cones farther south. Northward across another great field of pahoehoe rise the Big Lost Mountains with their dark belt of trees and the upper snow line and the lower desert line. Eastward across the lava waste are yellow grass covered lava domes that lie like so many sleeping camels at the foot of Big Butte...its sides furrowed with age. Farther east is East Butte just able to peep over the camels and to watch the Craters of the Moon. [70]

As he recorded volcanic resources and other phenomena for his geologic map and the monument's new boundaries, Stearns occasionally erected markers to locate particular features. Once coming across a number of exemplary vertical tree molds, for example, he noted that he "built monuments near all of these." [71]

After two weeks Stearns pushed his inspection farther down the rift, finding more craters, waterholes, bombs, and Indian artifacts. The highlight of these southern trips was Echo Crater, which he described as a "great depression caused by the combination of three craters." It was beautiful, he stated, for green lichens covered the red cliffs, and large "green trees grow in the bottom, and it is an ideal campground." It was here that Stearns, Paisley, and two other men established a base camp. They reached the crater by saddle horses and ferried their supplies in by wagon. Stearns reported that they had to build a primitive road into the site and were the first to drive a wagon into the crater, requiring three of them to brace it over difficult stretches. [72]

From here Stearns surveyed the southern extremes of the monument, visiting Little Prairie Flow and its namesake waterhole, where Era Martin had constructed a water trough for his livestock a few years earlier. Stearns also inspected Moss Cave, Bearsden Waterhole, Sheep Trail Butte, Split Butte (named for its appearance and location on an old fissure), Fissure Butte, Two Point Butte, Amphitheater Cave, Vermillion Chasm, Natural Bridge and Bridge of the Moon--again finding more new sections of lava bombs, craters, spatter cones, and Indian trails and artifacts.

Throughout his exploration, the geologist also kept note of the wildlife he encountered. Whether on Sunset Cone or out in the expanse of lava terrain, he either saw or saw sign of numerous birds, such as Clark's nutcracker, hawks, and eagles; red fox, coyote, and bear; porcupine, chipmunk, squirrels, and pack rats; rabbits and deer. Near Indian Tunnel he found an antelope skull, and in Buffalo Caves he came across a buffalo horn. A memorable encounter occurred in Great Owl Cavern where he saw two large great horned owls; one perched on a ledge, he wrote, and "looked like a great pussy cat glaring into the light out of a dark hole." [73]

In addition to inventorying the geologic and wildlife resources of the monument, Stearns contemplated the age of the fresh-looking lava formations. It was a subject that fascinated many, and several theories existed. One suggested analyzing the amount of soil and vegetation on the lava flows; another suggested estimating the age of trees charred from the heat of lava flows, and still another suggested estimating the age of charcoal in tree molds. He dismissed all of these based on his field experience. A popular account, for example, was Limbert's observation that burned sage on Big Cinder Butte resulted from a recent eruption. Stearns soon proved this wrong, however, when Era Martin informed him that he set brushfires in the area, including on the butte, to increase forage for his livestock. A more reliable method relied on the size and age trees. Thus toward the end of his study, Stearns selected an "age tree," a large limber pine about thirty-five inches in diameter, standing at the edge of Big Crater lava flow. He sawed it down, counted its rings, and estimated that the most recent eruptions could have occurred within the last several hundred years. [74]

In March 1927, he submitted his recommendations for boundary adjustments to the Park Service, which enlarged the monument by about thirty-five square miles. Stearns believed that the new boundaries gave the monument "a more regular and geometric shape," hence making it "much more easily defined and administered." More significantly, the enlargement embraced many of the features Stearns and others had explored, some of which were Amphitheater Cave, the Bridge of Tears, a large section of Vermillion Chasm, and all of the Blue Dragon Lava Flows. Expanded the following year, the monument's new boundaries encompassed a larger section of the Great Rift and its representative features as far south as Two Point Butte. [75]

Steams also used the raw material from his 1926 survey to publish a number of important articles, papers, and popular guides about the geology of Craters of the Moon. In them he revealed his attempts to better understand the area by visiting or studying other volcanic areas in the world--Iceland, Italy, and Hawaii. He concluded that the Great Rift produced numerous eruptions over several epochs as basaltic lavas spewed from its fissures and amassed cinder cones, craters, spatter cones, and other volcanic formations for about fifty miles in length. Within the approximately eighty square miles he had surveyed, Stearns counted nearly ninety volcanic vents and forty lava flows. All of these compared well to those volcanic features and forms in the known lava fields, volcanoes, and fissure eruptions around the world. And some even excelled the finest examples in other volcanic fields; the spatter cone chain, he believed, was one of the most perfect inn the world. Craters of the Moon was not only a unique place to study and marvel over, but it was also a place that held the key to the origins of the Snake River Plain and the Columbia Plateau. [76]

Stearns stood out among those who conducted research at Craters of the Moon, but he was also part of a larger trend which saw interested students of science and geologists visiting and studying the monument and surrounding region during the 1920s and 1930s. One important figure was Edward F. Rhodenbaugh. A geology professor from Idaho State College, Rhodenbaugh led class field trips to the Craters beginning in 1923, and he continued to visit the monument on his own throughout the decade, hiking, camping, and studying the various features he encountered and the specimens he collected. Generally positive about the monument and a supporter of its establishment, Rhodenbaugh found it a satisfying place to study, along with the other "bare and open spaces" of his own country. And while he never rivaled Stearns or made significant "discoveries," he frequently contributed articles on the monument and other areas of southern Idaho to the state's leading papers. [77]

In 1935, G. Frederick Shepherd undertook what was perhaps the last exploratory trip of the monument. A seasonal ranger and geology graduate student from the University of Chicago, Shepherd investigated the monument's volcanic terrain throughout the summer season, and when the season ended, he traversed the Great Rift from the monument to Minidoka. On October 6 he cached supplies at two base camps on the Rift, returned to monument headquarters, and set out two days later. He followed the general route taken by Robert Limbert years earlier. Traveling by foot, he spent three days mapping the eruptions associated with Coyote Butte. When he finished mapping, he left his base camp at Sheep Trail Butte and exited the monument, entering unexplored country to the southeast, country even Limbert had not seen. He explored the vicinity of Lone Butte, and though making good time, he ran short of water, and headed east, taking the shortest and easiest route out of the lava flows. Crossing rough lava flows and walking about sixty-five miles of dirt roads without finding water, he finally reached Minidoka in the early morning hours of October 13. A few days later he retraced his route by airplane from Pocatello, photographing the northern end of the monument and Big Southern Butte, but bad weather prevented taking aerial photographs of the middle and southern sections of the monument. [78]

Similar to Limbert, Shepherd thought that the formations and scenic qualities of the monument's southern section equaled and perhaps surpassed those of the northern section. Although he planned to write a thesis on his discoveries of the volcanic formations along the Rift in the monument and the Snake River Plain, he only produced two small articles on the subject. And though the Park Service attempted to retrieve copies of Shepherd's maps and photos, it never seems to have happened. Like Limbert, the success of Shepherd's exploration lay in advertising the significance of the southern reaches of the monument and the Great Rift. [79]

The General Land Office surveys during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked explorations of a different sort; they attempted to make the Craters of the Moon landscape conform to township and range. Traditionally, surveys opened up the public domain to settlement. The more difficult and worthless terrain was typically left unsurveyed until necessary or, in cases of extreme conditions, never surveyed at all. The Craters country was one of these cases, left unsurveyed because it was believed to be a valueless, lava barrier until its establishment as a national monument and its removal from the public domain.

Portions of the monument were surveyed prior to its establishment and subsequent expansion into the foothills of the Pioneer Mountains in the late 1920s. Likely prompted by new settlement and mining discoveries in the Lava Creek area, the General Land Office completed the first of two cadastral surveys here in late August and early September 1883. Headed by Allen M. Thompson, the survey only included the eastern half of T. 2 N., R. 24 E. because the western half was "mountainous and broken." The surveyed district contained some rich bottomlands in the vicinity of Lava and Champagne creeks, and potentially rich outcroppings for gold and silver mining, as well as the active operations of the Golden Chariot Mine.

Most of the land surveyed within the monument contained broken basalt, poor soil and grass, and little water. One exception was the area drained by Little Cottonwood Creek. Located roughly in sections 22, 26, and 27, it formed a gently rolling valley carpeted with native grasses, bisected by the Blackfoot and Wood River Stage Road (formerly Goodale's Cutoff, the emigrant trail). As they paced off section lines, surveyors marked their grid by erecting stone cairns at quarter and corner section lines. In 1914, the western half of the mountainous township was surveyed, including the headwaters of Little Cottonwood Creek and surrounding hills. Here, too, surveyors raised mounds of stone as section markers, but more often they set in the ground three- foot-long iron posts with brass caps stamped with section coordinates. [80]

The most extensive and formidable survey was undertaken in 1929 covering most of the monument's fifty thousand acres of rolling lava plain. Survey teams led by H.G. Bardsley and Frank D. Maxwell ventured into land ominously characterized on maps as solid lava fields. Between August and October, surveyors charted T. 1 N., and T. 2 N., and T. 1 S., R. 25 E.; T. 1 N., R. 24 E. As with other surveys, they marked quarter section and section points with iron posts or rock mounds. Because they were creating a grid, the surveyors experienced the landscape wherever it intersected a survey line. In the shorthand of their survey notes, Bardsley and Maxwell remarked that the country was not entirely impenetrable lava, but alternately cinder fields, craggy lava, and hard lava flows, with scattered patches of sage, limber pine, and the occasional waterhole, The country possessed neither agricultural potential nor any visible mineral wealth, and there were no settlers in the entire region. The only sign of human activity was the old wagon road that followed the rift to Little Prairie Waterhole, this area also being one of the few that supported enough grass for grazing in the spring and fall. In all of this undulating lava terrain, cinder cones and craters added relief to an otherwise monotonous plain, and provided a means to find bearings, further assisted in one instance by the survey monument on Fissure Butte, and when that was unavailable, they used trees. [81]

In the spring of 1937 the final survey was completed, embracing what would become the southeast corner after the Carey Kipuka addition nearly thirty years later. What had once been undefined, ostensibly worthless land was now "defined"--gridded by section lines on a map and studded with section-marking posts.

Epilogue: Modern Research

Exploration of the monument was conducted in large part by geologists in the first three decades of the century. Their interests ranged beyond reconnaissance to research itself. That is, they sought to understand how the monument's physical environment was formed. Pioneering geologists like Israel C. Russell and Harold T. Steams, for example, asked many of the same questions posed by their more recent counterparts. Primarily, all geologists, past and present, have sought to understand the age of the Craters of the Moon lava flows and the history of the monument's eruptions. In this respect, geological research shows a continuity with the monument's historical past. Between the 1960s and 1980s, some of the country's most respected geologists have studied the monument. By using more sophisticated theories and technology than available to their predecessors, contemporary geologists have built on the scaffolding erected by these earlier geologists and, in doing so, suggest more accurate conclusions. [82]

Much of this research, covering a ten-year period and conducted primarily by the Geological Survey, was summarized in a 1982 report authored by Mel A. Kuntz and others. That report, "The Great Rift and the Craters of the Moon Lava Field," analyzed existing as well as new data collected in the monument. Radiocarbon dating, for example, enabled geologists to determine the relative age of the lava, and paleomagnetic measurements on the lava flows and photogeologic maps as well as standard geologic maps allowed them to decipher the monument's volcanic history. The study suggested that at least eight eruptive periods produced the lava flows of the Craters of the Moon Lava Field. The eruptive periods began about fifteen thousand years ago and ended about two thousand years, lasting not more than several hundred years at intervals of about one thousand years. The report, though followed by more specific and detailed studies, helped answer some of the questions posed by the first geologists, questions that puzzled the untrained mind of visitors as well. Indeed, by the 1980s, Craters of the Moon had been studied in "more detail than any other lava field in the Snake River Plain." [83]

Summary of Context Theme

Exploration played an important part in understanding the Snake River Plain for the purposes of national expansion, settlement, and resource development in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning in the 1830s and lasting through the 1870s, federally sponsored or federally-connected explorations investigated the plain as part of this multifaceted mission and as part of larger investigations of the West. Army officers, naturalists, artists, and geologists formed the ranks of these expeditions. Whether reconnoitering the new territory, plotting overland trail and railroad routes, or cataloguing the West's natural and cultural resources, the surveys created a sweeping view of the region. Most of these explorers steered clear of the forbidding Craters country. Though observers, some trained in geology, recognized the geological significance and unique beauty of the Craters district in the late nineteenth century, it was the work of geologists in the early twentieth century that revealed the area's importance. Surveys by Israel C. Russell and Harold T. Stearns between 1901 and the late 1920s were the most notable. But others continued to study new tracts of this country into the 1930s.

Coinciding with these surveys was a growing awareness of the Craters region by the neighboring populace. Clouded in mystery, the lava territory drew ranchers, settlers, and local outdoors people to investigate the region for themselves. Robert W. Limbert epitomized their activities. Throughout the 1920s, his explorations, and his writings, photographs, and publicity of those explorations brought the region to the attention of the state and nation, all of which culminated in the establishment of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

The General Land Office surveys of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also made the country more identifiable; the grid of township and range brought the Craters country out of its mysterious beginnings. It had been mapped. But it was not fully understood from a geological perspective, and between the 1960s and the 1980s geologists continued to study the monument to better understand the age of its lava flows (and myriad formations) and the history of its eruptions.

Associated Property Types

Name of Property Type: Structures and Resources Related to Explorations and Surveys


Craters of the Moon's explorers and surveyors left little in the way of physical structures that can be easily grouped and identified as a typical property type. Properties or features associated with their activities include cairns, wooden ladders, campsites, wagon roads, trails, and survey markers.

Explorers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries traveled through the monument, named geological features, and mapped their locations. They also mapped the routes they traveled, to some extent, and documented their trips in word and picture. They further documented their passage by erecting stone markers, the existence of which has never been well documented. Examples of these would be the rock cairn Powell and Ferris erected at Vermillion Chasm Waterhole and the bone they inscribed their names on in 1885 in Buffalo Cave. (A photograph of the cairn exists, and the bone seems to be in the monument's museum collection. Apparently Stearns found it and Powell--or Ferris--retraced the inscription.) Other examples not easily confirmed would be the cairns explorers like Era Martin and Robert Limbert and geologists like Harold Stearns built to identify the way to specific features or as reference points for finding their way out of a maze of lava flows. Limited historical documentation keeps us from knowing the physical character of these cairns. We can only surmise that they were conical in shape and several feet high to be visible above the relatively flat terrain. There is more historical evidence, however, to document the use of wooden ladders by geologists to descend into lava tunnels and other caverns. Israel Russell, for example, was known to have used a wooden ladder during his survey of the monument at the turn of the century.

For both explorers and geologists like Limbert and Stearns, campsites were important. The most important, or most mentioned, of these was Echo Crater. Reached by a primitive wagon road or trail, the crater offered good shelter, a pleasant setting, and adequate water supply. The campsite was an important staging area for investigations of the southern reaches of the monument. Other campsites were mentioned less but required similar natural features such as water and shelter to be attractive. Two places were Devil's Orchard and Registration Waterhole, As in the case of Echo Crater, a short wagon road or rough trail was sometimes built to reach a campsite. The Echo Crater road was permanent enough to appear on General Land Office survey maps from 1929.

Surveyors, though not the high-profile characters that explorers and geologists were, left some of the most permanent physical structures: survey markers. Most of these were three-foot iron posts with brass caps stamped with section coordinates and date of survey. Where iron posts could not be pounded into the hard lava, rock mounds of approximately two to three feet were built. All of these grid the monument's vast lava territory; every section has four quarter section markers and four section markers (at each corner). Topographical surveyors also erected similar markers. Max Gleissner's team, which conducted the first topographical survey of the monument, placed bench marks on lava formations, although the only one noted in Gleissner's report was a temporary marker near Last Chance Cave. Another feature associated with this survey was the Hades Triangulation Station, a conical-shaped cairn of rocks stacked about seven feet high, located on Fissure Butte. Gleissner's team used it for triangulation. It is uncertain who built it or if it is intact today, but Fissure Butte ins inside the monument and a photo of the cairn was included in Gleissner's report.


These properties are significant under National Register Criterion A for their association with explorations and scientific surveys, a theme important in the monument's history as well as in the broader patterns of American history. Some properties may also be significant under Criterion B for their association with important figures in the history of southern Idaho.

Registration Requirements:

At Craters of the Moon, properties eligible under this category may qualify for listing in the National Register if they date between 1879 and 1937. Dates, however, may vary with new information. Properties must be historically significant. They must be associated with exploration or surveys of the monument, or those important individuals involved in these activities. These properties must also retain a significant measure of integrity for registration. A historically significant property may sustain some alteration and remain eligible as long as it retains its historic character.

No properties have been inventoried. Therefore, no requirements for integrity have been listed beyond the seven aspects of integrity recognized by the National Register used for evaluating a property's historic character. These are location, setting, design, workmanship, materials, feeling, and association.


The only known and potentially eligible properties are the survey markers and a wooden ladder recently discovered in one of the monument's spatter cones. A representative example of survey markers could be the marker located at the first headquarters site on the saddle between Paisley and North Crater cones. Fissure Butte should be investigated to see if a rock triangulation station is located on its summit. The wooden ladder should be formally evaluated for its association with monument exploration.

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Last Updated: 27-Aug-1999