diamondback terrapin
Last Week's Getaway:
Gateway National Recreation Area
New York City & New Jersey

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pika atop a lava flow
A pika scans the horizon from atop a lava flow. (Photo: Douglass Owen)

ranger-guided springtime walk
Visitors enjoy the springtime surroundings on a ranger-guided walk. (Photo: Dave Clark)

hot pink diminutive Dwarf monkeyflower
The diminutive Dwarf monkeyflower provides a burst of spring color. (NPS photo)

NPS.gov homepage photo: A backpacker charts his own course for solitude. (Photo: Dave Clark)

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Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

“Black vomit” is how one early traveler described the silent sea of lava. “The surface of the moon as seen through a telescope” offered another. Not often is the scenery of a national park described in such…vivid terms. But Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is far from your garden-variety park. You simply must see it for yourself – and spring is the best time to explore this unearthly landscape.

In spring you can savor the brief transition between deep winter snows and searing summer heat. That balance of extremes is reflected in the landscape itself. Blackened acres of volcanic cinders are softened by carpets of pink, purple, yellow, and white. Stop and look closely and you’ll find the patches of pink are made of tiny Dwarf monkeyflowers – each button-sized flower resembling a monkey’s face staring back at you. Even the younger, rockier lava flows are dotted with flowers bursting to life from deep crevices.

The scenery may be beautiful to look at, but it’s even more fun to get out there and experience it. Opportunities to hike and explore abound for all ages and abilities. At the Devil’s Orchard you can wander past house-sized blocks of lava – remnants of an old crater wall – and among twisted tree trunks hundreds of years old. Or peer down the throat of the miniature volcano known as Snow Cone for a fleeting glimpse of the previous winter. Both trails are wheelchair accessible and great for families with toddlers and strollers.

More adventurous souls seeking a new perspective can gain top-down and bottom-up views of the terrain with a pair of moderate hikes. A short but steep climb up Inferno Cone gets the blood pumping, and the view from the top is equally exhilarating. The Great Rift, a 52-mile long tear in the earth’s crust and source of the monument’s 60-odd lava flows, is visible along with most of Idaho’s Snake River Plain. Far removed from the windy vistas of Inferno Cone, drop below the surface to explore the quiet confines of Indian Tunnel. The darkened passages of this 800-foot-long lava tube offer a night-and-day difference – literally – to the surface world. Park Rangers lead daily cave tours during spring and summer. Flashlights are a must for exploring other caves on this trail.

And for those who truly want some elbow room, the Craters of the Moon Wilderness beckons. Springtime affords two welcome assets to exploring the little-visited wilderness: long days and moderate temperatures. Open fissures, pristine lava features, volcanic cones, and wildlife of the sagebrush steppe await. While overnight trips offer a real chance to explore the terrain, even a leisurely day hike provides an experience in solitude not soon forgotten.

The visitor center is staffed by friendly park rangers available to answer questions and suggest places to explore. Museum exhibits also offer helpful explanations of the terrain before you head out. There really is no better time than spring to visit. Come see if you can put into words a proper description of Craters of the Moon – a place like no other on Earth.

By Lennie Ramacher, Interpretive Park Ranger, Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve