Visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve

Anticipation was high as we drove the isolated back roads through Idaho to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Partly because we had been driving for eight hours from Montana. Mostly because we were just excited to see the Park. Craters unique campground lies in the middle of a lava field and were hoping to score a campsite there. It wasn’t high season in July but we didn’t know what to expect since it was first come first serve.

We were so excited as we arrived just before sunset. The black lava and landscape was so striking against the setting sun. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen and made us feel like we were walking on the moon or another planet. In fact, the landscape is so similar to the moon, the Apollo 14 astronauts visited Craters before their lunar landing. The park’s isolation only adds to that out of this world feeling.

Established as a Monument in 1924, Craters has been extended a couple of times. In 2002 it was designated as a Preserve. The Monument is about a three hour drive from Boise in the west and Jackson, Wy in the east, and should definitely be included in your next Western road trip. Here’s my tips for visiting Craters of the Moon.

Located in Southern Idaho, Craters only has one entrance off of US Hwy 20/26/93. The Visitor Center is at the entrance and is open from 8 am to 6 pm in the Summer, when we were there, and 8 am to 4:30 pm in low season. It’s closed on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. However, the Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During the winter the Park road maybe impassable because of snow.

Entrance fee is $20 per car and $15 per motorcycle unless you have an annual pass. There is no charge during the winter to drive the loop road. Credit cards are accepted.

The nearest town, 18 miles to the east, is Arco, ID. Which in itself is pretty interesting and quirky. It’s the first town ever to be lit by electricity generated by nuclear energy.

Craters sits at an altitude of 5,900 ft. and can experience weather extremes thru out the year. We visited in July, which probably isn’t the best time to visit because of the heat. However, it was perfect at night. We slept really good and we were able to leave the fly off our tent which gave us a great view of the moon.

There are 42 sites in the Lava Flow campground. It’s first come first serve, meaning you can’t reserve a spot in advance. 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 accepted.

Grills (charcoal only, no wood), picnic tables, bathrooms and water (in season) are available. Some of the sites are handicap accessible. There are no showers, hook-ups or dump stations. RV’s can be accommodated at a limited number of sites.

The sites lie among the lava beds and rock and have really good views of the park and 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, with views of the beautiful sunset.

Group camping and wilderness/backcountry camping is also available. See the NPS website for more info. Arco has a couple of other camping options including a KOA.

With no camp store in the park, the closest place to purchase food or groceries is Arco. There are a few restaurants there as well. We ate breakfast at Pickle’s Place the morning we left and it was delicious, real, made from scratch food. It was also full of locals so I figure it’s the place to eat.

Start with Craters seven mile loop road that has stops and trails to the different features. You can pick up a map at the Visitor’s Center or the NPS has a self guided tour with the stops on their website.

The Inferno Cone was one of our favorite trails. It’s very steep but once you are at the top you have amazing panoramic views of the surrounding area. Also surprising is the greenery and a few trees.

Snow Cone trail is another favorite that leads to splatter cones. These are areas that formed when blobs of molten lava were 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 then look down into the center.

You can also walk thru Devil’s Orchard in cinder beds and see the Triple Twisted Tree that helps scientists date the lava. One of the other features of the park is the lava tubes and caves. They require a free permit that can be picked up at the Visitor’s Center. You’ll need flashlights and the NPS also recommends hats and long pants to protect you from the sharp rocks. This is one of the things that we didn’t get to do while we were there but I’ve read that it’s very unique.

There is also some backcountry trails that require a permit. You can access a portion of the Oregon trail from the North side of the park too.

We loved Craters and would like to go back in the winter to experience it in snow. Even though there’s not a lot to do in the immediate area, you should definitely add this park to your road trip plans. If for nothing else to experience the unique camping and the beauty of Southern Idaho.

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