Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve -- 5,700'

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve

"An area of about 60 miles in diameter, where nothing meets the eye but a desolate and awful waste, where no grass grows nor water runs, and where nothing is to be seen but lava."  –Washington Irving (1868)


“It was if the great plain had been filled with molten rock which had kept its level and wound in and out along the bays and promontories of the mountain slopes as a sheet of water would have done.”  –unknown


“A glance at a map of Idaho shows that the southern part of the State, lying between Arco and Carey and north of Minidoka, is a vast region labeled desert or rolling plateau. Although almost totally unknown at present, this section is destined some day to attract tourists from all America, for its lava flows are as interesting as those of Vesuvius, Mauna Loa, or Kilauea.”  – R.W. Limbert (1921)


It was in the year 79 CE that a particularly grumpy (and assumed extinct) volcano in central Italy awoke with terrible fury, resulting in catastrophe and death for the nearby residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum. While the events surrounding the eruption of Vesuvius now seem like ancient history, from a geological standpoint it was barely a millisecond ago. So it was, around that time and a half-a-world away, that another volcanic event was just winding down…along what is now known as the Great Rift in south-central Idaho. Over a period beginning about 15,000 years ago, and up until the time of Pompeii’s destruction, this 52-mile long weak spot in the earth’s crust erupted with fair regularity creating massive lava fields and all manner of other volcanic formations. After the volcanic activity ceased and the molten lava cooled what remained was a vast 1,100-square-mile area of desolation which both daunted and mesmerized explorers for centuries to come. Thus it was that, in 1924, Congress established Craters of the Moon National Monument to protect and preserve this incredibly unique piece of natural history. Now encompassing over 750,000 acres (thanks to an expansion in 2000 which added the ‘preserve’ portion of the park) the rugged volcanic landscape is still largely undisturbed to this day. Only a seven mile paved driving loop and a handful of fairly short trails provide access, all accessed from the northern portion of the monument. This album will highlight a few of these trails…namely the Inferno Cone Trail, Broken Top Loop Trail, and Devils Orchard Loop Trail…along with stops along the main park loop. Though not a complete overview of Craters of the Moon, it is definitely a tour which highlights some of the monuments more dramatic landscapes and fascinating features.

The only access to the monument by car is off of U.S. Highway 20 at the north end of the park. The unassuming visitor center is located just inside the entrance and is a good spot to get your bearings before setting out deeper into the park. The wild volcanic landscape immediately surrounds you, with lava fields of broken black rock and sparsely vegetated cinder cones all around. Two miles south of the visitor center the loop portion of the park road begins, which is designated one-way in a counter-clockwise direction. Our first major stopping point was for a quick hike up Inferno Cone. At barely a half-mile round-trip, the trail nonetheless climbs 160 feet over its length so some may find it challenging. The barren pitch-black slopes of the cone are comprised of volcanic cinders which were once blown skyward before returning to earth and creating a giant mound. The effort to reach the top is well worth it as volcanic plains and mountains stretch to, and line, all horizons. Continuing along the loop, making a couple stops along the way, we then set out on the longer Broken Top Loop which departs from the Tree Molds Trailhead…which is the southernmost point accessible by car within the monument. The Broken Top Loop Trail measures in at just under two miles in length and, again, is not all that difficult. Of the paths we walked at Craters of the Moon on this visit, the Broken Top Loop was absolutely the best. Every major volcanic feature of the park is on display here, with interpretive stops along the way to better explain what your eyes are seeing. The most dramatic portion of the loop is at its southern end, where the route actually takes you out onto what is known as the Blue Dragon Flow. This is the youngest of the lava flows within the monument, the one that was just petering out at the time of Vesuvius. The formations and features seen while walking the old flow is truly otherworldly. After the Broken Top Loop we then continued along the park road making a stop for one more hike at the Devils Orchard Loop Trail. This paved, wheelchair accessible, half-mile trail was by far the easiest of our visit and somewhat less dramatic from a visual standpoint than our earlier hikes. Even so, for those with limited ability to walk the more rugged of the park trails, the Devils Orchard Loop still provides up-close looks at an array of interesting volcanic features with numerous nearby cinder cones visible nearby as well.

As with any National Park, there was so much more I would have liked to experience given more time at Craters of the Moon. I can’t really express how uniquely beautiful this stark and foreboding landscape is. Additionally, the crowds Limbert envisioned in his quote above have never truly materialized. Visitors do arrive from all over but in far fewer numbers than other parks. In contrast to the 4-million people who annually visit Yellowstone (only 3 hours away), Craters of the Moon sees barely 250,000. This results in an experience where one can truly enjoy the intricacies of this park without the distraction of traffic jams and crowds. Sadly, it’s a type of experience available at precious few parks nowadays. However, this could all change. In 2017 the Idaho Legislature voted to petition Congress to upgrade Craters of the Moon to full National Park status. While this sounds appealing on the surface, I worry that the fact Craters is currently “just a Monument” is why it has retained its relative obscurity…obscurity which will suddenly disappear once the almighty National Park designation is given it. This may be one of the first times I’ve ever considered creating a new National Park as a possible detriment to a place. I have no doubt, however, that Craters of the Moon will continue to fascinate and amaze visitors far into the future…regardless of its status within the park system. It is a truly special place and one I find myself lucky to have had the opportunity to explore, for however brief a time it was. With that said, it’s now my great pleasure to present you with a tour of the incredible Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Broken Top Loop Trail

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  43.427696, -113.547921

Route Type:  Loop                          Difficulty:  EASY  (Petzoldt Rating:  2.10 )

Hike Length:  1.8 miles                    Hike Duration:  1:30

Trailhead Temp:  50'F                     Trail Traffic:  5-10 people

Min. Elevation:  5,850'                     Max. Elevation:  5,960'

Total Vertical Gain:  150'                 Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  83'


GPX TRACK, MAP, & DATA

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Devils Orchard Loop Trail

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  43.451597, -113.538436

Route Type:  Loop                          Difficulty:  EASY  (Petzoldt Rating:  0.56 )

Hike Length:  0.5 miles                   Hike Duration:  0:30

Trailhead Temp:  65'F                     Trail Traffic:  10-25 people

Min. Elevation:  5,740'                      Max. Elevation:  5,750'

Total Vertical Gain:  30'                   Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  60'


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Inferno Cone Trail

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  43.444956, -113.555606

Route Type:  Out-and-back          Difficulty:  EASY  (Petzoldt Rating:  0.82 )

Hike Length:  0.5 miles                   Hike Duration:  0:30

Trailhead Temp:  40'F                    Trail Traffic:  5-10 people

Min. Elevation:  6,020'                    Max. Elevation:  6,181'

Total Vertical Gain:  161'                 Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  320'


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