Sunday, November 26, 2023

Craters of the Moon NM

After spending two great, but jam-packed days at Yellowstone National Park, it was time for my buddy Kim and I to head back home to Oregon.  From town of West Yellowstone, Montana we had a full day of driving across Idaho to get to Boise, our destination for the night.  But I'd planned one more stop as we passed through the state.  Although Idaho didn't have any national parks, it did have an area of unique volcanic landscapes that had been designated a National Monument - Craters of the Moon.

First views

Located in a sparsely populated area of Southern Idaho, Craters of the Moon NM is a 750,000-acre geologic wonderland managed jointly by the National Parks Service and Bureau of Land Management.  Exposed fissures, lava fields, lava tubes, craters, and cinder cones form this strange, but scenic landscape smack-dab in the middle of Idaho's Snake River Plain.  The volcanic activity that created this weird wonderland began 15,000 years ago and continued until just 2,100 years from the present times.  

Barren landscape at Craters of the Moon

Although the majority of this national monument can only be accessed by primitive dirt roads, requiring a high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle, the National Parks Service maintains a visitor center, campground, and paved roadway through a small portion of the area.  This was our destination.

Kim poses by a huge lava rock

After driving two hours westward from Idaho Falls, through an extremely sparsely populated area, Kim and I finally reached the visitor center.  We stopped to get maps and use the restroom before setting out on a quick tour of the National Monument.

Rough lava outcrop

I decided to drive the short loop road and stop wherever something interested us.  The loop road had seven numbered stops (the first one being the visitor center.)  Kim and I first pulled over at the North Crater Flow Trailhead and gazed out on the vast plain of chunky, cooled lava rocks.  Beyond the rough immediate landscape, green foothills stretched away to a few snowy peaks that anchored the skyline.

Lava plain

I read that this inhospitable landscape had provided a training ground for the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969.  At the time scientists believed that the barren, rocky plains closely resembled similar conditions astronauts would encounter when they landed on the moon.

I was surprised to see so many wildflowers

By now it was midday and the sun beat down.  With no shade to speak of and dark lava rocks reflecting the heat, Kim and I didn't linger long.  

The second stop on our drive was the Devils Orchard Nature Trail.  Only a half mile in distance, Kim and I decided to take a stroll, despite the heat.

Pretty yellow wildflowers

Devils Orchard was created about two thousand years ago when rivers of lava transported huge chunks of a crater wall into the area.  Time passed and the rocks eroded, creating soil to nurture the plants and trees that now grow.  Rabbitbrush and limber pines are the predominant vegetation.  The "orchard" name came from the fact that more plant life grows here than in other parts of the monument.

Lots of dead trees here!

We certainly saw lots of greenery.  And wildflowers!  I'm sure the early June timing of our visit had something to do with that.

Devils Orchard Trail

As we walked along the paved path through Devils Orchard I noticed a lot of gray, dead trees.  Not sure why there were so many.  It could be due to the rough climate conditions here in southern Idaho.  Rainfall is scant and weather extreme - scorching hot in the summer and bitter cold in winter.  And I'm sure the thin volcanic soil isn't enough to support very tall trees.

Lovely wildflowers

I particularly loved these pretty pink wildflowers (not sure of the name.)  They are apparently a very hardy variety, as I spotted a few blooms sprouting from a crack in the nearby lava rock.

Wildflowers growing in the rock

Finishing up our short hike at Devils Garden, Kim and I hopped back into the blissful car air conditioning and continued our drive.  The road wound upward around a feature called Paisley Cone to the next stop on the drive, a tall barren hill named Inferno Cone.

Paisley Cone

At the Inferno Cone parking area I noticed a flat plain of lava soil.  It was barren except for thousands of tiny plants dotting the area.  I'm sure in other seasons this area is in fact devoid of vegetation.  We were lucky to arrive in late spring when everything was growing.

Barren lava plain

Inferno Cone was a steep, conical hill made of volcanic ash and cinder.  These lava fragments were expelled via explosive eruptions from a single vent.  As gas charged lava was blown violently into the air, it broke into small fragments that solidified and fell as cinders around the vent to form a symmetrical cone.  I later read that Inferno Cone is unique because unlike other cinder cones, it does not have a crater at its summit.

Inferno Cone

Although the quarter mile hiking trail to Inferno Cone's summit was supposed to feature spectacular views, Kim and I took one look at the steep, gravelly user path and decided to skip it.  We felt temperatures were much too hot to attempt this shadeless trail.

Mountain views

After snapping a few images of Inferno Cone's dramatic, barren slopes, we piled back into the car for a short drive to the next stop on our Craters of the Moon tour, Spatter Cones.

Spatter Cone

The Spatter Cones were two miniature volcanoes with short trails around their cones, enabling visitors to walk to their center vents.  These small hills were formed when lumps of lava exploded into the air before falling back down around the vent they were ejected from.  As the molten blobs cooled, they formed the Spatter cones' irregular walls.

Looking towards the Snow Cone from Spatter Cone

The Spatter Cones trails were short, so Kim and I decided to check things out.  We walked up a paved path that transitioned into a curbed platform.  The main vent area was fenced, to keep overly curious visitors from falling in.

Trail to the Snow Cone

We noticed a third chunky hill beside the Spatter Cones.  A sign indicated this was named the "Snow Cone."  There was a trail leading to it, so Kim and I followed the path.

The rocky edges of Snow Cone

Looking into another fenced-off abyss, we immediately discovered why this particular feature was called the "Snow Cone."  Deep inside the volcano's inactive vent was a large patch of snow.  I later read that this vent is so deep that snow resides at the bottom year-round.

Snow Cone is appropriately named!

Although there were still a few other stops along the park road, by now we'd spent nearly two hours at Craters of the Moon, and still had a long drive ahead of us to Boise.  So Kim and I skipped visiting several lava tube caves and some more large cinder cones.  I guess this means I'll have to come back again when I have a bit more time to further explore this unusual place.

Lava selfie

But I was glad I'd taken the time to stop at this unique National Monument.  Another one to check off the list!  Now to head for Boise, and the next day home.  

I hope you enjoyed this recap of my late spring trip across the great plains and Pacific NW.  Now I'll have to get busy and post all the fall color photos I've been capturing.


  1. ...Mother Nature did a great job on this place!

  2. Isn't it amazing the variety of landscapes we have in the west?!

  3. I'm reminded of areas of Oregon, north of Klamath Falls on Highway 97, and also the top of McKenzie Pass.

  4. Your experience there looks more colourful than my visit mid June of 2012. It was hot when I was there but there were unusually high winds and I was not able to pitch my tent at the site I booked at the campground. I was fortunate to get a room for the night at a motel in Arco. Craters of the Moon is a land like no other and your great photos prove that!

  5. What a beautiful place to visit. Thanks for sharing.

  6. What a fascinating landscape, more like Iceland than anything I'd associate with North America.

  7. Interesting. I’m pretty sure I saw a little bit of this place on a trip with a friend 30 years ago. It looked desolate. I did not see your pretty wild flowers.

  8. Monkey Flowers! They are so pretty! What a nice stop!

  9. Fascinating areas! I really like the Inferno Cone photo and also the wildflowers.

  10. As Aleaxandra stated, "A land like no other"! Thank you for my visit.


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