What In The World?
Craters Of The Moon is the place to visit if you want to learn about volcanic geology. This expansive lava field stretches as far and wide as your eyes can see. It is claimed by the National Park Service to be “the largest and most complex post-Ice Age basaltic lava field in the continental United States.”
– You can find my Travel Tips at the bottom of this post. –
For us…it was a super cool way to explore lava and…get a little taste of what it might look like to visit another planet. Really! My kids learned all about how astronauts have explored this National Monument in preparation for space travel. Pretty cool! (FYI…they learned the details in their Junior Ranger books).
This unique landscape encompasses 618 square miles and includes 60 lava flows and 25 cones. It sits in the southeastern plains of Idaho’s Snake River.
As we approached the front of the park, we were impressed with the unique landscape. My biggest question was…
Where’s the Volcano?
Apparently, these lava fields are a result of eight major eruptive periods over thousands of years. These volcanic eruptions came up from a segment of the Great Rift volcanic rift zone. So when you look across the Snake River Plains, you will not find one massive volcano like you would in Hawaii. Instead you will find a foreign terrain that looks more like hills than anything else.
We visited on June 10, 2017.
The park is laid out perfectly to tour via car. The Visitor Center is directly off of the highway, as you turn into the park. We stopped there and learned about the park and had a short Q&A session with one of the Park Rangers.
You will then find a series of numbered stops on the park map, which you can view HERE.
We explored most of the stops. We were all grateful that we could do a car tour….as it was CRAZY windy. Apparently, the wind is not uncommon in this area.
Somewhere near the Broken Top Flow formation, the wind managed to steal the hat that Angie was wearing. Ironically, her sister had loaned it to her that afternoon. Boy did that hat fly across the lava plains…there was no chance of retrieval. We quickly tightened up our wind-breaker hoodies to secure our hats in place and ventured on…all bundled up to battle the wind.
There were plenty of examples of lava tubes. These are formed when the outside of a flow cools, allowing the hot fluid to continue to flow beneath the surface. Eventually the source of the flow gets cut off and a “cave” is left behind.
We also saw cinder cones, spatter cones and plenty of awesome lava rocks. To add some perspective, I found THIS detailed post from a geologist.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention that beautiful wildflowers that were blanketing the park.
Lastly, we explored the cave area. This of course…was the best part of the trip! If you have been following our adventures this year, you will notice that we are on a cave spree. Though we did initially search out caves to explore, at the request of my son, this was a surprise. I actually had no clue that there were caves here, until I began to research our visit. I just knew that other travelers had enjoyed this stop to the lava fields.
This was the first time we had been permitted to freely roam a cave. Cathedral Caverns, Mammoth Cave National Park, and Wind Cave National Park all require you to follow a guided tour in order to enter or explore their caves.
To explore the caves of Craters Of The Moon National Monument you will need to obtain a permit at the Visitor Center, wear closed-toe shoes and have your own light source.
All of these requirements are easy. To obtain the permit, the park wants your word that you have not had your clothes in any other cave…if you have, it must have been decontaminated. The reason for this is White Nose Syndrome, a mysterious ailment that is killing off bats in North America. The more caves we explore, the more I realize how serious this is. Bats are vital to the ecosystem of these caves, they are crucial to insect control, plant pollination and they provide food for other animals. Kind of important, right?
You can find more information on WNS in this NPS brochure HERE.
We managed to find clothes and footwear that had not been in other caves, or was decontaminated after our visit to Mammoth Cave. Our next cave visit will be a bit more tricky. I am on the search for the proper way to decontaminate gear…obviously I can not purchase new boots every time we visit a cave!
Ok, enough with the bats…the caves are awesome!
Three caves were open for us to explore and one was closed as it was still full of ice and snow. All of the caves are connected with these easy little paths…
This was the first cave that we came to. It is a great way to begin your explorations. Though it is not a very deep cave, it was a fun starter.
The kids were able to see exactly how slippery the rocks could be, experiment with their flashlights, practice navigating the patches of snow that remained and explore some cool formations.
Beauty Cave was our favorite, out of the three that we visited. At first glance, it seems rather shallow.
We all crawled down inside and our eyes adjusted to the dark. Once you are past the entrance, there is no natural light. We turned on our flashlights and headlamps and explored the icy rocks.
After fifteen minutes, we began to think that we had seen all that the cave had to offer. But then….Brendan asked if he could crawl through a hole in the rocks. We remembered what we had heard in Wind Cave National Park…that most tunnel openings are very small, less than a foot wide.
We agreed…and the adventure began. We crawled down through this.
Look at this photo below. Do you see the hole in the top center
The three kids and I all crawled through that. I will not lie…it was tight.
But as we scrambled down some bolders…it opened up into a room where even Lexi could stand up.
The kids had one of the most memorable adventures yet. Chris thought it best if he remained outside of the cave, in case he needed to send help. I’m not sure if that was the real reason…but that is what we are sticking with! He was able to snap a shot of where I crawled through though.
And here is my crew…post tunnel crawl.
Indian Tunnel Cave
This was the largest cave and it had the most natural sunlight. You could go to the very back and find pitch darkness, yet there was ample sunlight in most of the cave. It also had stairs to descend, rather than rocks to scramble. Once down the stairs however, there were plenty of rocks to navigate.
This cave is open and breezy…and is definitely the better option for those who prefer to not be in tight spaces.
All three tunnels were unique and fun. I am thankful that we were able to explore such a variety of elements below the surface.
Wow! What an awesome trip…roll me back ten years and I would never have guessed that I would be cave exploring with my peeps. My, how things have changed…but that is another post in itself!
Our Travel Tips
If you plan to visit Craters Of The Moon National Monument, you may want to consider…
- Plan for wind. Wear hats only when you can secure them. Bring windbreakers to block the wind and keep you warm in the cool caves.
- Wear sturdy hiking boots if you plan to enter the caves. Some of the rocks were VERY slippery.
- When visiting the cave area, there is a parking lot where you will stop. From there you will walk a path to go from cave to cave. Take your water with you in a backpack or hydration pack. The walk is long enough that you will not walk back and forth to your vehicle.
- Bring headlamps rather than flashlights if possible to free up your hands.
- I would definitely recommend wearing long pants if you are exploring the caves. You should also wear a hat for some small protection. We saw a woman with a head wound…probably from bumping her head on the low ceilings.
- Be prepared with a first aid kit. These caves are au-natural. No lights. No Rangers.
- There is a campground at the front of the park. It is dry camping only and they do not take reservations. It appeared to be full when we visited. You can find more details HERE. We stayed in a private park in the town of Arco, which was only 20 minutes away and it had full hook-ups. If we return, I would opt for dry camping if we can run our generator for a few hours to charge the RV batteries. Some of the campsites looked really cool. I also saw online that you can backpack in, and camp overnight in the park.
- Fuel and groceries are in the nearby town of Arco. If you require hotel accommodations, I would suggest driving out for the day and staying in one of the bigger towns…perhaps Twin Falls or Boise. There is not much in Arco.
- We were able to explore the park in an afternoon. Planning to spend half of a day will provide you with ample time, unless you are spending the night nearby…than you can enjoy some of the nature trails on a second day.
You can find more details on the National Park Service website.
Have you visited Craters of the Moon? If so, did you explore the caves?