splatter cones at Craters of the Moon national monument

Visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho

Are you traveling to Idaho and interested in visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve? Maybe it’s you’re just now learning about the park and you’re wondering if it’s worth the drive? Let me assure you that it definitely is.

Even though Craters of the Moon is a lesser known and a lesser visited national park, it doesn’t mean it’s any less special than other national park units.

In fact, it’s one of my favorite park experiences. From the moment we arrived just in time to witness a gorgeous sunset, we felt like we were on another planet.

The lava glowed in the setting sun with an ethereal feeling and we knew despite the long drive from Montana, visiting Craters of the Moon was worth it.

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Craters of the Moon sign

What’s So Special About Craters of the Moon?

It’s a National Monument + Preserve – Craters of the Moon was originally declared a national monument in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge. The park has been expanded a couple of times. In 2000, 410,000 acres were added and then declared a national preserve by President Clinton. Official name: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

Astronauts Trained at Craters of the Moon – We weren’t just dreaming about that otherworldly feeling. The landscape at Craters is so out of this world and similar to that of something in space, the Apollo 14 astronauts visited Craters in 1969 during their training before the lunar landing.

Dark Sky Park – Craters of the Moon is far enough away from major cities that in 2017, it was designated as an International Dark Sky Park. Dark Sky parks are some of the darkest places in the country. Even the communities around a Dark Sky park cooperate by installing special lights that minimize glare and reduce light pollution.

Where is Craters of the Moon National Monument?

Craters of the Moon National Monument is located in a remote area of southern Idaho. Getting there isn’t easy but it’s an interesting drive exploring Idaho’s Snake River Plain. There’s only one entrance to the park off of US Hwy 20/26/93. Once you are in the park, the nearest town, Arco is 18 miles one way. Here’s the driving distances some other more familiar towns.

  • Arco -18 miles
  • Sun Valley – 70 miles
  • Idaho Falls – 90 miles
  • Twin Falls – 94 miles
  • Boise – 174 miles
  • Jackson, Wyoming – 179 miles
Map of Craters of the Moon National Monument
Where is Craters of the Moon?

How Was Craters of the Moon Formed?

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.

Things To Do at Craters of the Moon

Even though Craters of the Moon is a pretty large park, the part you can access without a backcountry permit are fairly small and compact. Here’s a few things to do while visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Robert Limbert Visitor Center

Craters of the Moon National Monument only has one entrance. At that entrance, your first stop should be the Robert Limbert Visitor Center. Here, you can pick up the super important park map, see some cool interpretive info, including a park movie and get a permit for any backcountry hiking or cave exploring you plan on doing. Of course, the rangers are always there and willing to help with any questions you might have.

Southerner Says: The park is open every day but the visitor center is not. Check nps.gov for changing seasonal hours.

Just who is Robert Limbert? Mr. Limbert was a local explorer and someone who realized the value of the area. After years of exploring, Limbert sent then President Calvin Coolidge a scrapbook with photos of the landscape and the information from his expeditions. Two months later, President Coolidge proclaimed Craters of the Moon as a National Monument.

Park Loop Road

The best way to see Craters of the Moon is by driving through the park via the one way seven mile scenic loop road. All the trails can be accessed from this road. There are pullouts and stops for you to get a better view of the landscape and various geological features. The National Park Service also has a self guided tour with all the stops on their website. Most features easy walks and short hikes except for Inferno Cone. Here’s some of the other things you shouldn’t miss.

Devil’s Orchard + Triple Twisted Tree

The Devil’s Orchard trail (wheel chair accessible) is one of the first trails on the loop road. It’s a easy 0.5 mile one way interpretative trail that takes you an area of lava and rock that eventually crumbled and sprouted trees. One of those trees has become sort of a symbol of the park. The Twisted Tree is important to the park because it has helped scientists date the lava in the park.

North Crater Flow Trail

This area and trail is a great introduction to the park as one of the first stops on the loop road. It’s the shortest trail at 0.25 of a mile. The paved trail crosses one of the youngest lava flows. You can see pahoehoe lava flows and more. If you want to do a longer hike, the North Crater Trail is an additional 3.5 mile trail that starts nearby.

Inferno Cone

How often do you get to hike up a cinder cone? No matter how intimidating it looks, you have to hike up Inferno Cone. At a mile out and back with 500 ft. gain, it’s pretty steep but there’s a little trail that makes it a bit little easier to get to the top without slipping around. Once you are up there, you’ll have amazing panoramic views of the surrounding area. Also, it’s surprising that there’s greenery and a few trees on top. It’s definitely something you can’t miss.

Inferno cone at Craters of the Moon National Monument
Inferno Cone

Snow Cone Trail

Another unique feature is Snow Cone Trail. These splatter cones were formed when blobs of molten lava were forcibly tossed into the air at the end of an eruption. The lava 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 to see into the center of the cone. This trail is wheel chair accessible and is a good one for kids.

cinder cone at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

Exploring Underground

Craters of the Moon National Monument is also known for it’s caves and lava tubes. You can be explore them on your own but it requires a permit and a test for White Nose Syndrome before you go in the caves.

White Nose Syndrome is a fungus that affects and kills millions of bats. Humans aren’t susceptible but can carry it into the caves on clothes and thus infect the bats. Permits for cave exploring are available at the visitor center

Where to Stay at Craters of the Moon

Because of Crater of the Moon’s remoteness, it’s so much more convenient to stay in the park. It will save time and the campground is so unique, if you are someone that likes to camp, you’ll definitely want to stay there.

Camping In the Park

The Lava Flow campground in the park, has 42 sites and is a first come, first served campground that doesn’t take advance reservations. That means you’ll want to arrive early to try and get a spot.

Southerner Says: If staying in a first come first served campground makes you nervous, read my Easy Practical Tips for Camping in a National Park

The campground is open mid April through November, depending on weather. The camping fee is $15, unless the water has been turned off for winter, 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. The campsite fee is half price with the Senior America the Beautiful Pass.

Campground Amenities

Each campsite has a grill, a picnic table and a flat area for your tent. The campground has a few sites for RV’s but there are no hook ups or dump stations. There’s also water in the campground but the park service asks RV’ers to not fill their tanks.

Sites #34, 35, 42 & 3 are fully accessible. Site #34 contains an electrical outlet for use by those with medical needs.

  • There are bathrooms with flush toilets but no showers
  • Pets are allowed in the campground but they must be leashed at all times

Southerner Says: There isn’t a park store so if you plan on cooking, it’s best to bring supplies with you. There’s a small grocery store in Arco but if you need to stock up, it’s better to stop in one of the larger cities like Idaho Falls.

Campsite 22 in Craters of the Moon National Monument campground
Campsite 22 in the lava fields

Camping Outside the Park

In Arco, the closest town, there’s a KOA campground on the main road going to the park. KOA’s are good dependable campgrounds so it is a good second pick to the park campground. KOA’s generally have clean sites and nice amenities. Another campground in Arco is Mountain View RV Park and Restaurant. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about it other than it has a 4.2 rating on Google.

When I was researching the area and looking for camping around Craters of the Moon, I came across a place called Honey’s Park. From what I can tell, it’s a vacant lot and the owner allows people to camp there for free. There’s a website to contact him but he doesn’t accept reservations.

Arco, Idaho

Since we camped in Craters of the Moon, we didn’t spend too much time in Arco but it’s a kind of a cool stop and has it’s own interesting history. It’s the first town in the US to be powered by nuclear energy. They have a museum you can visit for more info.

For those that prefer a real bed, there are a couple of basic hotels in Arco. There are also a few Airbnb homes in the area as well.

For food and supplies, there’s a grocery store and a Family Dollar. The day we left, we ate at Pickle’s Place and had one of the best breakfasts we’ve had on the road.

A Few More Tips About Craters of the Moon

The best way to visit Craters of the Moon National Monument is to go prepared. Here’s a few other things you need to know.

When is the Best Time to Visit Craters of the Moon?

Craters of the Moon is open every day, year round. However, since the park is at a high altitude, the weather can be extreme.

The best time to visit is spring and fall when it’s cooler. Summer is very hot. Especially with the black lava, which makes it even hotter. The winter season usually means snow. November through mid April the loop road is closed but you can still explore on foot and with snowshoes.

We visited in June and it was pretty hot. Hot enough that strenuous hiking was out of the question. Even though it was hot during the day, when the sun went down, it was cool and the perfect sleeping weather. We even left the fly off our tent and to slept under the stars.

How Much Does Craters of the Moon Cost?

Entrance fee to Craters is $20 per car and $15 per motorcycle unless you have a park pass. Learn why you need to invest in a America the Beautiful park pass and save money to over 2k interagency park sites. Also, there’s no fee to drive the park road in winter.

How Much Time Do You Need at Craters of the Moon?

You can drive the park road and see most features in a day but to thoroughly enjoy the park and the night sky, try to spend the night or at least sunset at the park. It really is magically. I also think you could stay up to three days and have plenty do see and do.

Will I Have Cell Service in Craters of the Moon?

Probably not. I have Verizon and my daughter has AT&T and neither of us had really good reception in this area.

Are Dogs Allowed in Craters of the Moon?

Dogs are allowed in the park on roads, the campground and parking areas but not on any trails or the visitor center. If you do have pets with you when you visit the park. the National Park Service reminds you to clean up after your pets and dispose of waste properly. And don’t leave them in the car in the heat.

Craters of the Moon Packing List

Here’s a few things you will want to have for your visit to Craters of the Moon.

  • water
  • food + snacks
  • sunscreen
  • hand sanitizer
  • toilet paper (always)
  • appropriate shoes
  • a jacket or long sleeve shirt for cool nights + cave exploring
  • sunglasses
  • a hat or head covering
  • if you are traveling to Craters in winter, you’ll also need winter gear because of snow

Where Should I Go After Craters of the Moon?

Due to the isolation of the Craters of the Moon, there isn’t much to do in the immediate area but there are a few park sites within a couple of hours. When I plan another trip to the area, I’ll visit Hagerman Fossil Beds and City of Rocks National Reserve. These are two of closest park units. Also. Shoshone Falls in Idaho Falls, would be a good add-on to a southern Idaho road trip.

If you are headed east, then Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is only about three hours away. I would not want to do that drive late in the day or night because of wildlife and the Teton Pass but it’s a heck of a beautiful drive. Leave Craters of the Moon in the morning, and be in Jackson in time for lunch, with time to explore some for the rest of day.

More Craters of the Moon Resources

Visiting Craters of the Moon

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