Travel: Craters of the Moon — on Earth

With all the billionaires paying millions to rocket into space, it’s too bad they don’t know there’s a way to pay a visit to a lunar surface, without leaving earth, and without the sky-high cost.

Photo: Erin L
Photo: Erin L

Buried deep in the middle of Nowhere, Idaho, is a small park; a national park, no less. But hurtling across the undulating Idaho farmlands, barren of everything except corn and beans, one has to wonder what National Monument could possibly be cowering in the gulches and gullies here.

Mile after mile of fields suddenly and violently gives way to blackness.  Out of nowhere, the landscape changes from green to asphalt black, from dirt’s dullness and dust, to the sheen of blacktop and the glitter of rock. It’s a shocking transition, and most unexpected in this part of America’s heartland.

AMAZING LANDSCAPES

Photo: Erin L
Countryside approach to Craters of the Moon. Photo: Erin L

This is Craters of the Moon National Monument. Simplified, it’s a gigantic and widespread lava flow, that rolled over the ancient landscape two-thousand years ago, eating and incinerating everything in its path. In 1924, National Geographic called it, “a land supposedly barren of vegetation, destitute of water, devoid of animal life, and lacking in scenic interest.”

Here, I beg to differ.  This fascinating place is packed with oddities, life, curiosity, and a unique beauty.  On arrival, it looks as though some Goliath road crew went nuts with the blacktop, spilling it by the lake-full in every direction. On closer look that asphalt-looking rock is porous, bubbly, like the good old Aero bar. And plant life, trees and even small mammals have all made life here.

The easiest way to get an overview of the park’s wonders is to take a drive along Seven Mile Loop Road.

CRAZY LAVA SCULPTURES: THE “DEVIL’S VOMIT”

The first stops show off thundercloud-like piles of lava.  If Tetris used lava, this park would be the game board.  The lava has piled and curled up on itself, creating hills, spires and mini-mountains with an easy trail that winds among them.

Aa lava. Courtesy: nps.gov
Aa lava. Courtesy: nps.gov

Getting up close with these formations is really cool.  I learned there are actually three kinds of lava; pahoehoe (pronounced ‘paw-hoey-hoey”) and aa (pronounced “ah-ah”).  Not surprisingly, their names originate from the very volcanic islands of Hawaii. Aa is sharp, spiny and difficult to navigate on foot.  Pahoehoe is much smoother, and almost ropey. ” ‘The Devil’s Vomit’ is how one Oregon- bound pioneer described his encounter with Craters of the Moon”, according to the National Parks Service website. I wouldn’t go that far, but there is something almost sinister in the spartan blackness of this place.

Pahoehoe lava. Courtesy: nps.gov
Pahoehoe lava. Courtesy: nps.gov

CLIMBING THE INFERNO CONE

Next stop is the amazingly austere Inferno Cone; a giant mountain of black gravel (old volcanic debris) covering an ancient volcanic cinder cone.  It’s amazing in that it’s all tiny bits of black gravel, that look almost groomed, like snow might be on a ski hill.  The stark black background contrasts with the bright blue sky, amazing for gorgeous views and funky photos, and certainly lend that moonscape feeling to the walk.

Photo Erin L
Photo Erin L

In fact, the landscape here is so austere, in 1969, Apollo 14 Astronauts used this National monument as a moon training ground and real-life classroom for volcanic geology lessons.

CAVE ADVENTURES

Photo Erin L
Photo Erin L
Lava close-up. Photo: Erin L
Lava close-up. Photo: Erin L

The Apollo astronauts never went beneath the moon’s surface, but here you can. Hidden among and under the rocks are caves and caverns to marvel at.  They’re an easy walk with no special equipment required.

Photo: Erin L
One of the many easily accessible caves. Photo: Erin L

Hollows and coves, and lengthy tubes that would fit a train, and each have their own unique animal and plant life, and temperature variations.  Some can be quite cold, despite the scorched earth above. While the terrain isn’t difficult and there’s not really any climbing, you definitely need closed toe shoes.  The rough lava is like a cheese grater to open-toed shoes, and can easily shred your extremities.

If the landscape lures you, there’s camping in the park.  A warning that in the summer, that baked black terrain can be scorchingly hot.  And then the whole area cools off at night, not unlike a desert. Be warned there’s no food service in the park; you’ll need to head to nearby sleepy Arco, Idaho for your needs.

Photo: Erin L
Photo: Erin L
Map Courtesy: National Parks Service
Map Courtesy: National Parks Service

Craters of the Moon National Monument is one of those side-trips that you probably never knew existed, but will be forever seared in your memory if you come. And since scientists at the National Parks Service think the park is merely sleeping, not dead, you never know what it may look like in the future.

The author and her husband. Photo: R. Kingkade.
The author and her husband. Photo: R. Kingkade.

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