North Crater Flow Trail
Snow Cone and the Spatter Cones
Big Sink Overlook
Lava Tube Trail
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Randall Chapman | Dec 16th, 2018 | Travel
It’s been described as having the feel of walking on another planet and I can’t say I disagree. Designated as a National Monument in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge the park was expanded under President Bill Clinton in 2000. The lava flows at Craters of the Moon formed between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago and is created by the stretching of the earth’s crust and happens all along Eastern Snake River Plain. Several other smaller flows can be found throughout this area. Walking through here it’s easy to see where it gets its name. I grew up with pictures from the moon and have seen what it actually looks like, but the first man didn’t land on the moon till 1969, it’s easy to imagine people from 1924 believing the moon looked this way.
I was able to see all the main highlight points in an afternoon but one could find plenty to do here if they stayed for a couple of days. I also hike faster than the average visitor so you might want to plan a longer visit if you want to see it all. As you enter the park off of Hwy 26 you first come to the visitor’s center, make sure you go in and get your permit to enter the lava tubes. You can also get your maps and information and all the normal NPS visitor’s center stuff. From here you drive the lollypop loop that has a couple of spur roads that come off it. After you pass the gate where you show your pass, you’ll see the campground to you right and shortly after you’ll come across the first point of interest.
The North Crater Flow Trail
This quick loop is your first up close look at the lava flows and features several cinder cone fragments that got carried away by the flow during an eruption. The cinder cone it the mouth of the volcano. The trail has many informational signs that tell you about the geology and how it all formed. There is another parking lot about 50 yards down the road that is the trailhead for the North Crater Trail. I didn’t hike this trail and kind of regret it, I will have to go back and hike it someday.
Getting back on the road the next POI you come across is the Devil’s Orchard. This is another short loop with informational signs and quite possibly the best most informative map I have ever seen, I mean the trail is paved so it’s not like you’re going to get lost, but really, why did they bother to make this map.
From Wikipedia: Paleo-Indians visited the area about 12,000 years ago but did not leave much archaeological evidence. Northern Shoshone created trails through the Craters of the Moon Lava Field during their summer migrations from the Snake River to the camas prairie, west of the lava field. Stone windbreaks at Indian Tunnel were used to protect campsites from the dry summer wind. No evidence exists for permanent habitation by any Native American group. A hunting and gathering culture, the Northern Shoshone pursued elk, bears, American bison, cougars, and bighorn sheep — all large game who no longer range the area. The most recent volcanic eruptions ended about 2,100 years ago and were likely witnessed by the Shoshone people. Shoshone legend speaks of a serpent on a mountain who, angered by lightning, coiled around and squeezed the mountain until liquid rock flowed, fire shot from cracks, and the mountain exploded.
From there you come to the begging of the lollypop and turns into a one-way road. As you drive along, on the left you’ll see parking for the Inferno Cone. This is a short but steep hike and it well worth it. From the top you get one of the best panoramas of the monument. From the top of the Inferno Cone, off in the distance, to the east, you can see the Round Knoll Kipuka. Once an island in a see of molten lava this is one of the few places on the Snake River Plain where native vegetation hasn’t been disrupted by grazing or invasive vegetation, the park service uses it as a baseline when they attempt to rehab the landscape.
Snow Cone and the Spatter Cones
These cones are shortly after the Inferno Cone and have paved walkways and guard rails to protect the cones. On of the cooler features in the monument.
There’s a spur that comes off the loop and takes you to the trailhead for the Tree Molds and Broken-Top Loop. The trail out to the Tree Molds is a mile out and a mile back and is mostly flat so one can hike it relatively quickly. The Tree Molds themselves are places in the edge of the lava flow where the trees escaping moisture was able to cool the lava enough to form a cast as the tree was incinerated. As you hike out you get an amazing view of the Blue Dragon Flows, it’s absolutely gorgeous. There are markers at the tree castings.
Broken-Top Loop Trail
Back at the trail head I hiked the Broken-Top Loop Trail clockwise stopping off at the Big Sink Overlook that looks over a vast landscape of lava flow where most of the monument’s lava tubs have formed. From here you can also view Big Sink from above and see the remnants of an old lake of fire. As you continue on the trail you can find lava bombs laying about, basically a rock that formed as molten lava was spit out into the air and cooled enough to hold its shape as it hit the ground. Well, at least the ones you can find cooled enough. Farther down the trail you can find the Buffalo Cave, a lava tube that you can go into but make sure you bring a good head lamp, an iPhone light isn’t enough. This was one of the most recent eruptions and as such much of the really cool formations haven’t eroded away as much. The rock features here are a little more defined and really cool.
Lava Tube Trail
This trail is the main event in the monument! Make sure you stop at the visitor’s center on your way in and get a permit as these are protected. From the parking lot follow the paved pathway out to four lava tubes, the most stunning is the Indian Tunnel that looks like a subway tunnel made of rock. You can hike through the tunnel and climb out the back side but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are comfortable on class 3 terrain. After you exit on the far side there is trail markers that lead you back. The hike out to the Boy Scout Cave and Beauty Cave are well worth it but once again bring a good light.
There are a lot more things to see if you go back country. The park encompasses about 400 sq miles and like most national parks the road only covers a very small section of it. I think before my next trip here I’m going to do a little research and do a couple of the back country hikes.