Anticipation was high as my daughter and I drove the isolated back roads through Idaho to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. We had been driving for eight hours from Montana and were ready to be out of the car. Mainly we were just excited to see the Park. Craters had been a park goal for us for awhile. We were a little more than halfway into a 5500 mile road trip that had included Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Glacier National Park.
It wasn’t high season in July and we hoped to snag a campsite at the unique park campground that lies in the middle of a lava field. Since we had never been there before, we didn’t know what to expect. First come-first served campgrounds always make us a little nervous. Especially late in the day.
Arriving just before the summer sunset, the black lava landscape was striking against the glowing sky and sun. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen and gave us the feeling of walking on a different planet. In fact, the landscape at Craters is so similar to the moon, the Apollo 14 astronauts visited Craters before their lunar landing. The park’s isolation only adds to that otherworldly feeling.
Established as a Monument in 1924, Craters’ boundaries has been extended a couple of times, most recently in 2002. It’s definitely worth taking a slight detour off the interstate. It’s easy to get to and should be included on your next Western road trip.
How to Get There
The park is located in the Southern part of Idaho, about a three hour drive from Boise in the west and three hours from Jackson, Wyoming, in the east. Craters only has one entrance off of US Hwy 20/26/93. The nearest town, 18 miles to the east, is Arco, Idaho. Which in itself 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, when you get there, start with 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. It’s open from 8 am to 6 pm in the Summer, and 8 am to 4:30 pm in low season. It’s closed on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Even if the VC is closed, the Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is no fee in winter to drive the loop road. Just remember some parts of it might be impassible because of snow.
Where to Stay
There are 42 sites in the Lava Flow campground. As I mentioned, it’s first come first served, meaning there are no advance reservations. It’s 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. 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.
RV’s can be accommodated at a limited number of sites but there are no hook ups or dump stations.
The sites lie among the lava beds and rock and have really good views of the park and surrounding area. By the time we arrived at the campground, it was almost full. We were able to get site 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 place your tent on. Water is available in season. There are bathroom facilities but like most parks there are no showers.
Craters sits at an altitude of 5,900 ft. and can experience some weather extremes. We visited in July, which is low season and very hot. However, it was perfect sleeping weather at night. We were able to leave the fly off our tent to enjoy the cool air.
Group camping and wilderness/backcountry camping are also available. Check the NPS website for more info on that.
If the park campground is full, Arco has a couple of other options including a KOA that looks really nice. 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 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.
There isn’t a park store so if you need food or supplies, the closest place to buy them is Arco. There is a small grocery store there.
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 delicious! Everything, including the hashbrowns were made from scratch. There were also a few other places that looked intriguing, including a drive in and a place called Mello-Dee Club & Steakhouse. Both were closed at the time we left on Sunday morning. Mountain Man Trading Post promised biscuits n gravy. Tough for a Southerner to pass up but they were also closed.
Explore the Park
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.
You can get a good overview of the park highlights via its seven mile loop road. All trails are accessed from this road and there are pullouts for you to get a better view of the 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. These splatter cones are areas that formed when blobs of molten lava were tossed into the air at the end of an volcanic 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 also wheel chair accessible.
Make sure to stop and see the Triple Twisted Tree that’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.
One of the things that we really wanted to check out while we were there but didn’t have time for was the caves. Caving requires you to obtain a free permit and have been screened 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.
In addition to back country trails that require permits, a portion of the Oregon trail can be accessed from the North side of 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 the Milky Way.
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 the snow. 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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