Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

September 1, 2009
Filed under National Parks

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In a seemingly otherworldly area of Idaho known as Craters of the Moon, ancient volcanoes created a bizarre landscape featuring massive black cinder cones, caves formed from lava flows and a vast expanse of hardened, twisted lava sure to intrigue the motorhome traveler.

craters of the moon juniper treeFilled with such oddities as spatter cones and lava bombs, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in southeastern Idaho was described by President Calvin Coolidge as “a weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself.”

Aptly named for its barren moonscape appearance, this 1,100-square-mile national park features approximately 60 solidified lava flows. Located near the town of Arco – the first town in the world to receive its electricity from nuclear power – Craters of the Moon was formed by a different powerful force, magma. This molten rock pushed up through the earth’s crust thousands of years ago, creating a fascinating environment for today’s sightseers and adventurers.

craters of the moon visitor centerWhen you arrive at the park, be sure to stop at the visitor center where you can get helpful information, learn about the geology and history of the area and see samples of the various types of lava. Besides seeing the difference between jagged lava and smooth lava, you can learn about the four kinds of volcanic bombs that are found in the park.

As you venture onto the seven-mile Loop Drive through the park, you’ll want to stop at a variety of interesting spots along the way. Many of the unique features of the park are easily accessible via short walks from strategically placed parking areas. Take along plenty to drink as there is no running water along the loop.

One must-see stop is Inferno Cone. While it’s appealing to see this giant cinder cone, the real challenge is to climb the steep half-mile mound. Be careful – the height of the cone is deceptive. To see spatter cones, you only have a short uphill walk on a paved path directly from a parking lot. Spatter cones were formed near the end of a volcanic eruption when the hot lava was shot only a short distance into the air and fell back around the vent opening.

craters of the moon lava flowSome of the most interesting volcanic features at Craters of the Moon are the lava tubes, or lava caves. Created by the withdrawal of molten lava after the surface hardened, the tubes are hollow spaces beneath the solidified lava flow. The caves are undeveloped, with no artificial lighting, uneven floors and contain many natural hazards, but they’re fun to explore. For the slightly less adventurous, a large lava tube named Indian Tunnel offers a stairway for easy entry and, since portions of the ceiling have collapsed, sunlight filters into the cave so you won’t need a flashlight. You can opt to use the stairway to exit, or explore the 50-foot wide, 800-foot-long tube, climbing among the fallen rocks and emerging onto the lava field through a giant hole.

When you look at this harsh environment, you might be surprised to know how many plants and animals call Craters of the Moon their home. More than 660 different types of plants live in the park.

Living within the park are animals found nowhere else in the world, including lava tube beetles. Adaptations of the wildlife to the park’s aridness are absolutely amazing. Pocket mice and kangaroo rats are able to get enough moisture from their food so they can live their entire lives without drinking water. Craters of the Moon is a fascinating place to explore, whether driving and gazing upon the intriguing landscape, or taking the time to hike and venture into a cave. This park truly is like another world filled with unusual volcanic shapes, cinder cones and pit craters, a land largely untouched yet openly inviting.

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