|Craters of the Moon National Monument|
Yellowstone is about an hour and a half north of my home. Craters of the Moon is about an hour and a half west of my home. Why have I been to Yellowstone around a thousand times but only to Craters of the Moon four times? I really don't get that. I love both places and yet it seems much more convenient to drive an hour and a half to West Yellowstone than it does to drive an hour and a half to Craters of the Moon. Weird.
I suppose the drive to West Yellowstone is more engaging than the drive to Craters. That may be it. Who knows? When you drive to Yellowstone, the first thirty miles are through rich farmland and several small communities. Then the road goes up into the Island Park Caldera, the largest volcano in the world and through a series of spectacular lodgepole pine forests and lush mountain meadows and sagebrush steppes. The road to Craters of the Moon, on the other hand is thirty miles through farmland and small communities and then the road follows a commuter road to the INL, the nuclear reservation in central Idaho. The scenery is basically unchanging for the remainder of the trip. The road goes through Arco, Idaho which is the first city on the planet to be powered by electricity generated by nuclear reactors.
Oh, and there is also a conning tower from a nuclear submarine in Arco because there was once a submarine base out there in the middle of no water. A nuclear sub buried in the desert so submariners could get used to being underwater for months at a time without actually being underwater. That's why Idaho is a cool state.
The road between Rexburg and Craters is a lot less scenic than the road between Rexburg and Yellowstone. Maybe that is why the hour and a half to Craters seems a lot longer than the hour and a half to Yellowstone. Whatever the case, it has translated to me only going to Craters four times in my life. I aim to change that.
Craters of the Moon is a smaller park and much less developed than Yellowstone. It would be possible to hike all of the trails and see all of the sites in just a day or two. It would be a long day but it could be done. The scenery at Craters is spectacular and unworldly. Every time I go, I ask myself why I haven't been more often. My goal is to hike every trail and spelunk every cave at Craters of the Moon.
Last week, my oldest son asked me to drive him out to Arco, Idaho to check on a car he had seen listed on Craigslist. I thought that might be a good time to introduce my younger kids to Craters of the Moon. We made plans and the Hot Chick made her famous fried chicken and we made an afternoon of it. I got off work and we headed to central Idaho and Craters of the Moon. We didn't buy the car but we did get to go to Craters of the Moon and its weird lunar landscape. The Apollo astronauts trained at Craters in the sixties and after visiting the moon they said Craters didn't look anything like the moon.
Stop #1: North Crater Flow Trail
There is one major loop road through the park with a few spur roads to trailheads and other areas of interest. In total there are only about seven miles of paved roads in Craters of the Moon National Monument. There is a campground immediately after the park entrance gate and then the road skirts around a volcanic feature to the first trailhead. The trail is called the North Crater Flow Trail. This trail is a paved trail that is wheelchair accessible along it's entirety. There are interpretive materials all along the way describing different volcanic features as well as plant and animal life in the preserve.
The trail crosses over pahoehoe and a'a lava flows. Pahoehoe lava has a higher water content than the a'a lava. Pahoehoe tends to be more fluid and forms ropy strands of lava rock. A'a lava has less water content and tends to be heavily fractured and flows like rubble. I have seen film footage of an a'a flow in Hawaii and it's like steaming crumbling rocks are moving around on their own volition. It's a very interesting sight.
Another major feature of this trail are the crater fragments that were "rafted" into place during a later flow. In other words a volcano erupted by or beneath an earlier volcano and the flowing lava broke the previous crater and rafted the fragments to a new location. These are multi-ton sized rocks that the lava flow picked up and moved to a new location. Demonstrates the sheer power of these kinds of eruptions. I'm talking too much. Let's look at pictures.
|My three sons at Craters of the Moon. My other son is a missionary in Baltimore right now.|
|The family on the trail. I was actually there even though there is no photographic evidence that I was|
|Pahoehoe lava flow. Fun to see, funner to say|
|Dead bristlecone pine tree. Dated to 3500 years ago|
|I believe this is sulfur buckwheat|
|Some type of a penstemon|
|Stuff like this was all over the place|
|One of the rafted crater blocks|
|Smooth pahoehoe lava|
|Liked the colors here|
|Pahoehoe juxtaposed with a'a|
|Couldn't get enough of the pahoehoe|
|Hard to make a living on the lava flow|
|One of the rafted crater blocks|
|And a couple more|
|At a distance it all just looks like black rock. This stuff is surprisingly colorful|
|Green and orange lichen|
At the end of the paved trail was a spur trail which headed up a short but steep trail to an overlook and a trail back to the campground. We took that trail and came across some very small Lewis Monkeyflowers. Tiny even. The blooms were smaller than a dime. The monkeyflowers I am used to tend to be about the size of a half dollar. The Hot Chick suggested that with the harsh conditions, the plant realizes that if it doesn't send a bloom almost immediately it will die. The blooms are what allow the plant to reproduce and live. Very difficult to make a living in this environment, whether you are animal, mineral or vegetable. Still some species do alright here.
|Very cool geologic feature on the spur trail|
|Lewis Monkeyflowers, so named for Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition|
|Note the pine needle as a reference of scale here|
|The boys on the hill|
|The vista from the overlook at the top of the hill|
|The juvenile delinquent|
|Small cave in the flow|
|Pahoehoe and a'a together again|
|Even so, life finds a way|
|Clark's woodpecker. I'm always amazed at how many species in this area bear the names of Lewis and Clark|
|Another cave. a great hideout for small animals|
Stop #2: Inferno Cone
Our next stop is a feature called Inferno Cone. It's a fairly large black cinder cone that appears from a distance to have no life whatsoever on it. It's kind of a symmetrical cone and really quite striking. I have climbed it once before. It's a half mile to the top and very steep. All the while we climbed it, turkey vultures were circling overhead. Kind of a disconcerting feeling, I know what turkey vultures mean.
I was taking pictures of the vultures, minding my own business when a golden eagle flew overhead. Vultures are cool, but golden eagles are infinitely cooler.
When we reached the summit, the members of the family who had never been on top of this feature were surprised by a gigantic tree that has somehow managed to take root and grow and thrive on this forbidding pile of black basaltic cinders. Small bushes also grew up on top. The views were breathtaking. This is the best place in the park to see kipukas. A kipuka is an elevated part of an earlier lava flow that did not get inundated by subsequent flows. The plant life on a kipuka is isolated for thousands of years, so it's like a mini-Galapagos Island in a sea of basalt. The plant life on a kipuka is similar to the plants around it, but because of isolation for thousands of years it's different on a genetic level. I don't pretend to understand the complexities of it but I get the layman's version.
|Monkeyflowers in full bloom. Later in the season, the flowers will all be gone and it will look barren|
|Another cone fragment|
|The wildflowers are in full bloom right now. This kind of thing was everywhere. I love the contrast between the vegetation and the black earth.|
|The Hot Chick being naughty|
|The boys summiting together|
|Turkey vulture. Okay, so I like crows and vultures. Is that so weird?|
|Love the aerial perspective of this landscape|
|One of the three buttes that dominate the desert in south central Idaho|
|The whole landscape here is volcanic|
|Then there was this golden eagle|
|I'll have to identify this plant later, but they were all over the place|
|Tree at the top of Inferno Cone|
|View from the top|
|Six of the eight turkey vultures I saw circling, waiting for something to die|
Stop #3: The Spatter Cones
From the top of Inferno Cone, you can see our next stop, the spatter cones. There is a series of spatter cones, which are cones that form at the end of a volcanic cycle. The lava is cooler, thicker and more viscous. It shoots out in small blobs that fall on each other and weld together. You can still see the individual blobs, but they are fuzed into a single cone. There are several of them but the trail only allows for you to visit two of them. There is a sign that shows the cones from the 1920's that shows how unrestricted visitation has damaged the cones. They've done a few things to minimize the damage people do now and most of the cones in the array are not available to visit. The trails lead right into the craters though and they are big enough for a Volkswagen Bug to be ejected from.
|The second spatter cone|
|You can see just how viscous it was|
|Trail into the crater|
|Open your eyes boy!|
|Even in this barren waste, life clings. Lichen thriving on lava|
|Pretty sure I saw a skull here|
|Another spatter cone|
|Series of spatter cones|
Stop #4: The Drive Out
It was getting late, we had a late start because we couldn't leave until I got off work, and my son wanted to be home around ten, so after the spatter cones, all we had time to do is drive out and dream about the hikes we didn't do. We drove past the Lava Cascades and the trails to all the caves, and then we drove to the trailhead for the tree impressions. There are tree impressions you can hike to that show where trees were either entombed vertically or laying down. The trees are no longer there, as they would have been completely reduced to ash by the molten rock. Because of the moisture content of the trees, though, as they burned, ironically they cooled the rock which hardened faster than the rock around, which left the tree impressions. Mind blown.
I have only seen the tree impressions once, thirty years ago, back when you could drive to them I think. At least that is what I remember. We didn't see them this time, nor did we hike the Devil's Orchard. We drove by both of them and committed to get an earlier start next time so we could do those and a few other hikes. Next time.
|Wild larkspur. In a barren environment like this, I'll take what color I can get|
|A different view|
|It's like this rock was like molten, man and flowed like a river. Dude!|
|More lava cascades|
|Acres of this feature|
|And very cool|
|Which is why I kept taking photos of it|
|But wait, there's more|
|Came around the corner and loved the juxtaposition of life next to lifeless|
|Another splash of color|
|Part of the Devil's Orchard|
|And another part|
|Devil must have been busy|
|More stuff. Not sure if this was rafted into place or if it is core segments that were ejected|
|Whatever the case it must have seemed pretty violent at the time|
|Last pic of the day on the way out.|
I don't know why we don't spend more time at Craters of the Moon. I'd love to go there more and hike on every trail and spelunk every cave. The scenery is spectacular. This is one of the most extreme environments on the face of the earth and lo, life thrives. Next time.