Craters Of The Moon National Park: Best place to hike to a crater or lava tube

Visitors standing in lava tube

Visitors standing in lava tube

Experience what’s it’s like on the Moon, here on Earth at Crater’s Of The Moon National Park.

By Kevin Keckeisen

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is an ocean of volcanic cinder cones, spatter cones and sagebrush that features good hiking trails and an intriguing scenery that’s worth a visit. Its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, makes it a great alternative if you want to avoid the crowds and was described by President Calvin Coolidge as “a weird and scenic landscape peculiar to itself.” President Coolidge established this national monument in 1924, which is located along the Snake River Plain in south-central Idaho. It contains the three youngest lava fields on the entire plain, all of which lie along the Great Rift Volcanic Rift Zone of Idaho. This area has some of the best examples of open rift crevices in the world, including the deepest known on Earth at 650 feet (198 m).

The park’s most distinguishing features are its cinder cones, spatter cones, lava flows, lava tubes (caves) and other features associated with basaltic volcanism. The Craters of the Moon lava field is also the largest geologically young basaltic lava field in the lower 48 States (618 sq. miles/1600 sq. km). Visitors are encouraged to hike the many large cinder cones and visit the spatter cones, which are some of the most accessible anywhere in the world. Some of the best to check out include Snow Cone which features a wheelchair accessible trail and allows hikers to look down inside the spatter cone and see snow that remains at its bottom. Another is 700-ft. Big Cinder Butte, one of the largest purely basaltic cinder cones in the world. For those wishing to see some lively colored lava, make sure to check out the Blue and Green Dragon flows.

Various spatter cones litter the landscape at Craters Of The Moon National Park.
Various spatter cones litter the landscape at Craters Of The Moon National Park. Photo courtesy NPS.

Some of the most fascinating and unusual natural features of the park are tree molds, which are impressions of charred wood formed when lava flows surround a tree. According to Doug Owen, the park’s geologist and education specialist, two of the best trails to see this fascinating natural phenomenon are the 2.2 mile (3.6 km) round-trip Tree Molds Trail, and four mile (6.4 km) round-trip hike out to the lava trees on the Wilderness Trail.

The Wilderness Trail is a favorite among hikers and backpackers. It leads four miles (6.4 km) from the Tree Molds parking lot and extends over the Broken Top cinder cone, across the Trench Mortar Flat area and into designated wilderness before gradually disappearing near The Sentinel cinder cone. Most backpackers camp overnight in Echo Crater, a volcano three to four miles (4.8-6.4 km) from the trailhead. Backpackers can travel beyond the Sentinel cone, but be forewarned that uneven lava flows and dense shrubbery slow down the hike and make it unpleasant in certain areas. The trek usually takes a day or longer to complete; a free permit is required for overnight trips into the backcountry and can be obtained at the visitor center.

Owen also recommended hiking the self-guiding nature trail called Broken Top Loop.”The scenery is beautiful on these moderately strenuous hikes,” says Owen. He also recommended seeing many of the park’s lava tubes, which are located only about a half-mile from the park’s main parking lot. The various lava tube caves offer visitors a unique opportunity to delve deep underground and explore some of Earth’s natural conduits, through which molten lava traveled beneath the surface of a hardened lava flow that had been spewed out by a volcano during an eruption. All of the caves except the one called Indian Tunnel, require flashlights and head protection. It is required that all visitors must obtain screening and a permit before entering any cave on National Park Service lands. Screening and cave permits can be obtained at the Monument entrance station, the visitor center, and on ranger guided tours.

There are also many other interesting features of the Monument and Preserve for those who do not like hiking. According to Owen, local wildflowers peak in June which attracts many photographers and makes for some beautiful scenery. Furthermore the park is also home to the greatest density of mountain bluebirds anywhere in the country. These species of birds are cavity dwellers and the lava tubes affords them many opportunities to build a home. “The almost iridescent blue on the males [birds] contrasted against the black lava is quite a sight,” explained Owens.

Keep in mind that there is no surface water in the wilderness and the nearest city, Arco, is 18 miles away. So it’s important to pack plenty of food and water before heading out for a hike in the park. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/crmo/index.htm.

A view of Echo Crater in Craters Of The Moon NP
A view of Echo Crater in Craters Of The Moon NP. Photo courtesyNPS.
A panoramic view from the top of Big Cinder Butte.
A panoramic view from the top of Big Cinder Butte. Photo courtesy NPS.
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