The Wilderness Act of 1964 recognized wilderness as as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain". This definition has always fit a large portion of Craters of the Moon. Designation of the 43,243 acre Craters of the Moon National Wilderness Area was signed into law on October 23, 1970. With that legislation lands within Craters of the Moon National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park became the first within the National Park System to be designated as wilderness.
Expansion of the Monument in 2000 included another 495,000 acres of adjoining lands already determined by the Bureau of Land Management to be worthy of wilderness designation. These lands remain undeveloped and are managed to ensure they will continue to qualify as wilderness while Congress ponders the issue. All but the north end of the wilderness lies adjacent to the Great Rift Wilderness Study Area (it formally received presidential recommendation for wilderness designation in 1985).
Recreational use of the wilderness area has remained limited. Fewer than 100 people a year obtain overnight camping permits for the area. The entire area is snow covered and virtually inaccessible for at least 1/3 of the year. The vast majority of overnight wilderness users hike the Wilderness Trail and camp inside of Echo Crater. Stock use is restricted to day use on the Wilderness Trail. No overnight camping with stock is permitted.
The Wilderness Trail leads four miles from the Tree Molds parking lot to the Sentinel. The Lava Trees and Echo Crater both make good day hike destinations. Most backpackers spend the night at Echo Crater, three miles from the trailhead, but there are also camping opportunities at the Sentinel and beyond.
The Wilderness Trail begins at the Tree Molds parking lot. Walk along the sidewalk approximately 75 yards to a trail on the right. Here you can choose to hike over or around Broken Top cinder cone.
The trail continues past Big Cinder Butte, which rises 700 feet above you. A half mile beyond Big Cinder, look for a series of lava trees and fissures west of the trail. The trail winds between Coyote and Crescent Buttes to Echo Crater. Be sure to climb to the rim for a spectacular view of the row of cinder cones that mark the Great Rift. From the top, it is an easy walk down the south side of the cone. You can go into the crater and find protection from the sun and wind under the limber pines.
The hiking trail becomes less distinct beyond Echo Crater, but can be followed as far as the Sentinel, where it disappears altogether. You can travel cross-country beyond that point; however, dense shrubs and uneven lava make the going slow and sometimes unpleasant. Wear long pants for bush whacking or your legs will get shredded!
Please obtain your backcountry permit at the Visitor Center during normal business hours. In order to restrict human impact to a limited area, please camp at Echo Crater if at all possible. If you do select other campsites, use them for only one night and then move on. Strive to leave no trace of your presence. Pack out all trash. Bury human waste six inches deep in cinder areas. Do not move large rocks, logs or other objects at your campsite. If you clear the ground to create a smooth sleeping surface, return it as closely as possible to its original condition. Try not to trample plants at your campsite or when hiking cross-country. Using care during your visit will leave the wilderness in pristine condition for the next visitors.
Read a first hand account of a Craters Wilderness experience by Paul Miller, 2015 Artist-in-Residence.
Last updated: August 6, 2020