Our anticipation was high as we drove the isolated back roads through Idaho to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. I was halfway through a 5500 mile road trip with my daughter that had included Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Glacier National Park. We had been driving all day from Montana and we were ready to be out of the car. Mostly, we were just excited to see the park. Craters had been a park goal for us for awhile. We wanted to see the lava!
Arriving just before the summer sunset, the landscape was such a contrast against the glowing sky and sun. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen and gave us an otherworldly feeling. The landscape at Craters is so out of this world and similar to the moon, that the Apollo 14 astronauts visited Craters before their lunar landing.
About Craters of the Moon
Established as a Monument in 1924, Craters’ boundaries have been extended a couple of times, most recently in 2002. The area was formed not by a volcano on top of the ground, but lava that was pushed up from under the ground.
Craters of the Moon lies on the Great Rift. It’s a 52 mile long chain of deep cracks in the earth. When the underground volcanoes erupted those cracks allowed the lava to pop and burst through to the surface. Depending on how easily or how forceful this happened is what formed the landscape in Craters. This is the reason you will see a variety of shapes and colors in the park.
In 2017, Craters was designated as an International Dark Sky Park. Unfortunately when we were there the moon was full so we didn’t have a chance to see many stars or the Milky Way.
There is also wildlife in the park. None of which we saw unfortunately.
Where is Craters of the Moon?
Craters of the Moon National Monument is located in the Southern part of Idaho, about a three hour drive east from Boise and three hours west from Jackson, Wyoming. There is only has one entrance off of US Hwy 20/26/93. The nearest town, Arco, Idaho, is 18 miles to the east, Arco is very small but lf is pretty interesting and quirky. It’s the first town ever to be lit by electricity generated by nuclear energy.
Since there’s no entrance station to the park, when you get there, stop by the Visitor’s Center to pay your fee. Entrance fee to the park is $20 per car and $15 per motorcycle unless you have an America the Beautiful annual pass. The park is open every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, from 8 am to 6 pm in the Summer, and 8 am to 4:30 pm in low season. The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So even if the VC is closed you are able to pay at one of the fee collection boxes. There is no fee in winter to drive the loop road.
The Best Time to Visit Craters
Because of the altitude of 5,900 ft. Craters can experience some weather extremes. We visited in July and it was very hot. You are surrounded by black lava which makes it worse. However, it was perfect sleeping weather at night. We were able to leave the fly off our tent and enjoy the cooler night air.
If you are visiting in the summer, make sure you have plenty of water, get on the trails early and take breaks. Some of the trails are short but intense.
Mid November through mid April snow is possible so the loop road may not be passable. But how beautiful it must be in snow.
Camping in Craters of the Moon
Because of it’s remoteness, camping is the best option at Craters of the Moon.
In the Park
The Lava Flow campground has 42 sites. It’s a first come first served campground, meaning there are no advance reservations. You just have to show up and hopefully get a spot. Which always makes me nervous. RV’s can be accommodated at a limited number of sites but there are no hook ups or dump stations.
The campground is open mid April through November depending on weather. The fee is $15, unless they have already turned off the water, then it’s only $8. Cost is half price with the Senior America the Beautiful Pass. There’s an automated machine that allows you to pay with a credit card. No cash or checks are accepted.
Sites #34, 35, 42 & 3 are fully accessible. Site #34 contains an electrical outlet for use by those with medical needs.
All the sites lie among the lava beds and rock. The views of the park and the surrounding area are gorgeous. By the time we arrived at the campground, it was just about full. We felt lucky to get site number 22, in the middle of the park.
Every site has a grill (charcoal only, no wood), a picnic table and flat ground with cinder gravel you can pitch your tent. Water is available in season. There are bathroom facilities but like most parks there are no showers.
There are bathrooms but no showers. NPS asks that RVers not fill their water tanks in the park. Quiet hours are 10 pm to 6 am.
Pets are allowed in the campground but they must be leashed.
Group camping and wilderness/backcountry camping are also available. Check the NPS website for more info on that.
If the park campground is full, there are a couple of other options including a KOA in Arco. Since it’s just 18 miles from the park, you could stay there and still explore the park easily. Mountain View RV Park and Restaurant is also in that same area. Both of these campgrounds have showers and offer other amenities.
When I was doing research for this portion of our road trip, I ran across a mention of a place called Honey’s. Apparently it’s vacant land that the owner allows people to camp on. There is now a website. It looks interesting and if I’m in the area again, I will definitely check it out.
Where to Eat Near Craters of the Moon
There isn’t a park store so if you need food or supplies, it’s best to get them in Arco.
We had brought our food with us but we did end up eating at Pickle’s Place in Arco the morning we left. It was pretty good. Everything, including the hashbrowns were homemade. There were also a few other places that looked intriguing. Mountain Man Trading Post promised biscuits n gravy. Tough for a Southerner to pass up but they were also closed.
Exploring the Park Above the Ground
Hopefully you picked up a map while your were at the Visitor’s Center. The NPS also has a handy self guided tour with all the stops on their website.
The best way to see the is via its seven mile loop road. All trails can be accessed from this road and there are pullouts for you to get a better view of the various features.
The Inferno Cone was one of our favorite trails. It’s very, very steep but the NPS plows out a trail to make it a little easier to get to the top. Once you are there, you have amazing panoramic views of the surrounding area. Also surprising is the greenery and a few trees on top.
Snow Cone trail was another short hike we enjoyed. The splatter cones were formed when blobs of molten lava were forcibly tossed into the air at the end of an eruption. The matter then formed these miniature volcanoes. You can hike up and around the cones and there’s a fenced area where you are able to look down into the center of the cone. This trail is wheel chair accessible.
Another interesting feature that has become a symbol of the park is the Triple Twisted Tree. It’s located on the Devil’s Orchard trail (also wheel chair accessible). The tree has helped scientists date the lava in the park and has become kind of a park symbol
Exploring the Park Underground
One of the things that we didn’t have time to do was explore the caves and tubes formed by the lava. If you want to explore them, then a free permit can be obtained from the Visitor’s Center. Park employees will also test you for White Nose Syndrome.
White nose is a fungus that has killed millions of bats. Humans are not susceptible to it but can carry it on clothes and infect the bats unknowingly. You can pick your permit at the Visitor’s Center. The NPS recommends flashlights, hats and long pants to protect you from the sharp rocks in the caves.
My friend Charli was able to visit the caves recently and you can read about her adventures here.
In addition to back country trails that require permits, a portion of the Oregon trail can be accessed for hiking from the North side of the park.
Exploring Outside the Park
While there’s not a lot in the immediate area around Craters, there are a couple of other NPS sites not too far away. Hagerman Fossil Beds and City of Rocks National Reserve could be combined with your visit to Craters.
We really hope to get back to Craters and experience it in winter. I think it would be stunning to see the black of the lava against the white snow. While it takes a little effort to get there you should definitely add this park to your future road trip plans. If for nothing else but for the unique camping and the beauty of Southern Idaho.
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