We were excited as we drove the isolated back roads through Idaho to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. My daughter and I were halfway through a 5500 mile road trip from Georgia that included Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Glacier National Park. We had been driving all day from Montana and we really wanted to be out of the car. Mainly, we were excited to see the park. We had talked about visiting Craters of the Moon NMP for awhile now and were ready to see the lava.
Arriving just before the summer sunset, the landscape was a striking contrast against the glowing sky and sun. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen and gave us an otherworldly feeling as so many of the parks seem to do. The landscape at Craters is so out of this world and similar to that of the moon, the Apollo 14 astronauts visited Craters before their lunar landing.
About Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve
Established as a Monument in 1924, Craters of the Moon is best known for its lava fields. 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 what scientists call 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 the lava spewed is what formed the landscape in Craters. This accounts for the variety of shapes and colors in the park.
The landscape is so unique, the park’s boundaries have been extended a couple of times and most recently in 2002.
In 2017, Craters was also designated as an International Dark Sky Park.
Where is Craters of the Moon NMP
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. It’s not hard to get to but it’s remote location makes it a lesser visited park.
The nearest town, Arco, Idaho, 18 miles to the east. Arco is a very small town but pretty interesting and quirky. It’s the first town ever to be lit by electricity generated by nuclear energy.
Craters of the Moon only has one entrance off of US Hwy 20/26/93. Since there’s no entrance station with a ranger when you enter, 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 visitor center 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. However the park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Even if the visitor center is closed, you can pay at one of the fee collection boxes. However, there is no fee just to drive the loop road in winter.
The Best Time to Visit Craters of the Moon NMP
Sitting at an altitude of 5,900 ft. Craters of the Moon National Monument can experience some weather extremes. We visited in July and it was very hot. Also remember you are surrounded by dark lava which can make the heat seem worse. It was perfect sleeping weather at night though. We were able to leave the fly off our tent and enjoy the cooler night air.
If you do visit in the summer, make sure you have plenty of water, get on the trails early and take frequent breaks. Some of the trails are short but can be intense.
Mid November through mid April, snow is possible so the loop road may not be passable.
Where to Stay at Craters of the Moon NMP
Because of it’s remoteness, if you are planning on staying overnight when visiting Craters of the Moon, camping is going to be the easiest and closest thing to the park. There are a couple of options.
Camping in the Park
The only camping in the park is the Lava Flow campground. It has 42 campsites. 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.
A few tips about the campground:
- Every site has a grill for cooking (charcoal only, no wood), a picnic table and flat ground with cinder gravel where you can pitch your tent
- Water is available in season but the park service asks that RVers not fill their water tanks in the park.
- There are bathrooms but no showers
- 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.
Camping in Arco
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 Park. Apparently it’s a vacant lot that the owner allows people to camp on for free. He now has a website but does not take reservations.
According to Google, there are a few motels in Arco for those who don’t want to camp.
Where to Eat Near Craters of the Moon NMP
There isn’t a park store so if you need food or supplies, it’s best to buy them at the grocery store in Arco or as you drive in from one of the larger cities like Idaho Falls.
We brought food with us but we did eat at Pickle’s Place in Arco the morning we left. We enjoyed our food and liked the opportunity to connect with some local people. All the food, including the hashbrowns, was homemade.
There were a few other restaurants that looked interesting. Mountain Man Trading Post promised biscuits n gravy. Tough for a Southerner to pass up, but they were closed.
Exploring Craters of the Moon NMP
Exploring Above the Ground
If you picked up a map while you were at the Visitor’s Center you can use it to find your way around the park. The National Park Service also has a handy self guided tour with all the stops on their website.
The best way to see the park is via the 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 geological features.
The Inferno Cone was one of our favorite trails. It’s very, very steep but the park service 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
Explore Below the Ground
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 on her blog.
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 Around the Park
While there’s not a lot to do in the immediate area around Craters of the Moon NMP, there are a couple of other NPS units not too far away. Hagerman Fossil Beds and City of Rocks National Reserve could be combined with your visit to Craters of the Moon to make for a longer visit to Idaho.
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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