Three Rules for Enjoying Craters of the Moon

Ranger and Spatter Cones

by David R. Clark, Chief of Interpretation- retired

"Its like black vomit from the bowels of the earth" was the reaction of a 1860s emigrant when crossing the lava fields in the present day Craters of the Moon National Monument.This colorful description was probably the most critical ever expressed about this volcanic landscape, but the negative comment most commonly heard at the visitor center desk is "This place is nothing but black rock."

After working at the monument for over 25 years, this phrase came to aggravate me every time I heard it. I wasn't aggravated by the visitor, but by the fact that I Knew that none of these visitors had really given themselves a chance to experience the place at its best.

Visitor surveys done at the park showed that statistically nearly all visitors to Craters of the Moon arrived between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. sometime during the months of July, August, or September.The problem with visiting the lava beds during this time is that all you experience is an overpowering, parching sun, a drying and too persistent wind, and a stark, seemingly lifeless, landscape of black rock.No wonder so may visitors never return and so many Idahoans fail to identify the place as being as beautiful as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Given a chance, however, I am convinced that anyone who followed these simple rules would come to see Craters of the Moon as every bit their equal:

Rule #1: Visit the Monument Early or Late in the Day

The monument is a different place near dawn or dusk. The first thing you realize is the terrain isn't really black at all. Much of the rock is a dark chocolate-brown, but there are streaks of pure red bisecting the cinder cones where steam exited the ground and caused iron-rich lava to oxidize (rust).The cinders are not black either. They are covered in iridescent blues and silvers that resulted because of a quick cooling that produced a thin coating of volcanic glass to form. And the lava flows so colorless in bright light really have surfaces of cobalt blue or jade-green caused by trace elements picked up by the magma as it moved up through the earth's crust.

At these times of day, your senses are not overwhelmed by the brilliant light of the sun that creates the impression that the lava flows are bleak and barren. You realize that there are virtually plants everywhere. Limber pines, rabbitbrush, and sagebrush on the low slopes of the cinder cones and numerous islands of vegetation scatted throughout the lava flows. And on even the most recent of flows, you can see a multitude of different colored lichens and mosses.

Getting out early or late allows you to experience an environment that is anything by lifeless. Mule deer are up and feeding. Marmots are gathering one more meal of grass or herbs.Forested areas that are silent during the heat of the day awaken with the calls of dozens of different species of birds. The wildly diverse environments resulting from different types of eruptions provide numerous different niches that support nearly 50 species of mammals, over 150 species of birds, and more than 350 species of plants. Hiking any of the parks numerous trails in the morning or evening offers a multitude of chances get a glimpse of any of these animals.

Rule #2: Visit the monument sometime other than summer

While there is nothing wrong with visiting the monument in the summer (if you follow Rule #1) most people don't realize that the other seasons of the year all offer there own unmatchable experiences. Springtime comes to the park rather late in June. But at Craters, just like the in the meadows of Idaho's mountain country, spring brings out the wildflowers. Every year, the bloom of flowers burst forth with a rainbow of colors; the blues of the larkspur, yellows of the arrow-leaved balsam root, and the pinks of the evening primrose and wild onion.

Cinders are covered with thousands of the dime-sized dwarf monkeyflowers until the dark cones are covered with a magenta-tinted blanket. Dwarf buckwheat with their pale yellow pompoms grow as small mats of vegetation with such precise spacing between each plant that people often think they have been planted by hand. Yellow desert parsley, red Indian paintbrush, and red, orange, or yellow prickly pear cactus grow where windblown dust has collected in the cracks that dissect the lava. Surprisingly, lush ferns grow in the deeper cracks where conditions are cooler and moister than near the surface.

In the fall, the heat of summer disappears giving way to chilly mornings that turn into warm, pleasant afternoons. The wind seems to blow least during these months and the days tend to take on a yellow-orange hue that that just makes you feel good. Hiking is never better than in the fall and longer trips into the wilderness are not the death march they can be in the summer. A chance to camp overnight at Echo Crater and to experience some of the last pure, unadulterated solitude found anywhere is an opportunity only a few people take advantage of each year.

Winters brings on an entirely different appearance and feel to Craters of the Moon. As several feet of snowpack accumulate, colors disappear and the scene is one of black and white. But the stark contrast gives the place an unearthly feeling that is unlike anything most people have experienced. Since the loop drive is closed in the winter, the monument can only be seen by skiers or those on snowshoes.

The park provides a groomed trail approximately 7-miles in length that is one of the best to be found anywhere in Idaho. The equipment used to set the track is the same as that used in the Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City and can be used by both cross-country skiers and snowshoers.

Rule #3: Take Advantage of the Programs Offered at the Monument

It is very unlikely you have ever experienced a landscape such as the one found at Craters of the Moon. Because of this, it is very difficult to understand what you are seeing, how it came to be, and what can be expected to happen here in the future. Why is the smooth lava flows called "Pahoehoe" and the flows of jagged, sharp clinkers called "aa"--or for that matter why are there two types of flows in the first place? Providing answers to such questions is considered to be very important by the National Park Service. The park staff strives to provide visitors with an opportunity to understand and appreciate their park.

Certainly the exhibits in the visitor center, the trailside panels, and the park's publications can explain many of your questions, but the best way to learn and experience the park is to attend one of the programs or walks provided by a ranger naturalist. You have the opportunity to see things up close, ask all the questions you want, and be in the company of someone whose enthusiasm for this fantastic place is infectious.

During the summer, walks and evening programs in the campground are provided on a daily schedule. Hikes are taken into the lava tubes (caves attract the most interest of any feature in the park), but the hike most recommended is the Buffalo Caves hike given most mornings. This hike leads to a little used area of the monument and over a course of 2-miles visits nearly every type of volcanic activity and vegetative type to be found. At the halfway point, visitors are taken into Buffalo Cave, a lava tube, for an underground tour.

On Saturdays during the summer, special walks are presented on selected topics to provide people with special interests in taking a detailed look at park themes. Hikes are given for those interested in wildflowers, birds, geology, wilderness, and a variety of other topics. Participants get special attention by park staff and are taken into many areas that are seldom visited by others.During the winter months, winter ecology programs are provided on most Saturdays. These programs provide a background on what wildlife is doing during this period as well as discussing winter travel and safety. Classroom work is combined with a snowshoe hike that is perfect for first timers. Snowshoes are even available for those who need them. All of these activities limit the number of participants so you need to contact the park for reservations ahead of time.

In all my years at Craters of the Moon, I always felt let down when a visitor told me that they weren't very impressed with the place. It wasn't the visitor's attitude towards the park that bothered me, but the fact that I knew they would have felt very different if they had just altered their visit a bit. The one constant I observed was that anyone who got a glimpse of the true park never felt left down and those who got a really good look never failed to love it.

Copyright David R. Clark, 2005

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
1266 Craters Loop Road
P.O. Box 29

Arco , ID 83213


208 527-1300

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