US National Parks, West Coast US

“I Walked on the Moon” – Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho (part I)

First things first: if you don’t understand the reference in the title of this post, drop everything and go look up Brian Regan on YouTube (well, okay, read the rest of the post first and then go look him up!). He’s my absolute favorite comedian for two reasons: (1) his humor is clean, and (2) he takes everyday things that happen to everyone and makes them hilarious. There are many things my family and I can no longer do without hearing Brian Regan in our heads. I like all of his stuff, but I highly recommend his Emergency Room skit and his Airport Humor skits.

The title of this particular post is from his aptly-named “I Walked on the Moon” feature.

Now obviously I haven’t actually walked on the moon. If I was an astronaut, I’d have much more interesting things to blog about. But I have walked on the barren, black expanse of land in Idaho known as Craters of the Moon National Monument. And of all the places on Earth that I’ve ever visited or seen in photographs, this area does in fact most closely resemble the moon.

Craters of the Moon National Monument is located 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Arco, ID, and about 5 hours from our home in Montana. It wasn’t actually our top choice of places to go over Labor Day weekend 2010, but the weather forecast in northern Montana forced a last minute change of plans. So we headed south instead for some sunshine and warmth.


The monument protects miles of grassland as well as three lava fields, remnants of volcanic eruptions that occurred as far back as 10-11 million years ago when the hotspot that is now underneath Yellowstone National Park was located beneath central Idaho. (It’s actually a bit of a misnomer to say that the hotspot moved; it was the North American tectonic plate that moved while the hotspot remained stationary.) The volcanoes at Craters of the Moon are not extinct, though, only dormant, with the most recent eruptions occurring between 1,000-15,000 years ago. Some geologists estimate that the area may experience eruptions again in the next few hundred years.

In the meantime, Craters of the Moon is protected and largely inaccessible. One road leads into the park from the north. This 7 mile (11 km) loop road provides access to only a very small section of the park, with one wilderness trail that extends beyond the loop road for 5 miles (8 km) into the backcountry. Beyond this, there are no trails.

There are 8 short front-country trails along the loop road as well, ranging in distance from 0.1 to 2 miles (0.15 to 3.2 km) round trip. Most people only spend part of a day at Craters of the Moon (the campground rarely fills), but I highly recommend camping for at least a couple of days and really taking the time to explore this unique landscape.

We began our weekend at the visitor center, located just inside the park. Our next stop was Lava Flow Campground, the only campground in the park. It’s aptly named. The entire park is covered with lava rock, and the campground is no exception. This makes for some awesome campsites. Our site (I think we were in #13) was surrounded by a conglomeration of large black boulders, giving us quite a bit of privacy despite the wide-open landscape.


Just across the road from the campground is a hill with an unofficial trail up the side. I highly recommend this climb – it’s steep but the view from the top is well worth it. It also gave us an up close look at the vegetation that manages to find a life in this arid, rocky environment.


If you do have just one day in the monument, the loop drive is the best way to see a lot in a short period of time. This 7 mile (11 km) loop takes about 30 minutes to drive, leaving plenty of time to stop at pullouts and hike some of the shorter trails. Since we’d be there for 2 days, we spent day 1 hiking the trails on the first half of the loop road.

We stopped at the first trailhead, a 0.3 mile (0.5 km) loop through North Crater Flow. There are two types of lava at Craters of the Moon, and both are on full display here. A’a (pronounced AH-ah) forms when viscous lava flows rapidly over a rough landscape, leading to formation of a jumble of jagged rock fragments when the flow hardens. Because of this, a’a is very uneven and sharp, and can actually cut you if you trip and fall onto it.

Pāhoehoe (pronounced pa-HOY-hoy) forms when less viscous lava flows in an uninterrupted manner, allowing it to cool slowly into much smoother formations. The patterns formed by pāhoehoe lava are incredible, and North Crater Flow showcases many of these.


The reddish color is a result of oxidation of minerals in the rocks. This occurs naturally over time, but the process is accelerated by stepping on the rocks

Our next hike was Inferno Cone. A 0.25 mile (0.4 km) strenuous trail leads straight up to the top of this giant cinder cone. It’s incredibly steep and the fact that we were walking on little tiny pebbles made the hike even more difficult, but we were rewarded with excellent views from the top. From here, we could begin to see just how expansive this lava flow is, and how utterly desolate a landscape it has created. It amazes me that anything can live here. Some species of flora and fauna are incredibly resilient!


Just beyond Inferno Cone are the Spatter Cones. These volcanic cones are formed when small blobs of lava splatter upwards, fall back down onto the edge of the cone, and harden. Short trails lead to the top of two spatter cones, one of which is so deep and shaded that, even after a long hot summer, snow remained in the depths of the crater.



Spatter Cones

This concluded our adventures on day #1. Stay tuned for day #2 – an exploration of lava caves!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: located 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Arco, ID on US Highway 20/26
  • Fees & passes: $10 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
  • Camping: Lava Flow Campground; 51 sites, no reservations (you won’t need them), $15 per night
  • Hiking: (1) North Crater Flow, 0.3 miles/0.5 km RT; (2) Inferno Cone, 0.5 miles/0.9 km RT, strenuous; (3) Spatter Cones, 500 feet (150 m) RT
  • Other: There’s no water beyond the visitor center and campground, so plan accordingly. When you’re out on the trails, remember that the rocks are hot and incredibly sharp, there is no shade, and wind is a constant

9 thoughts on ““I Walked on the Moon” – Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho (part I)”

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